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

Friday, 30 December 2016

The Zone Quartet I

Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 1 – Lair of the Saurians is the first supplement for Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, the post-apocalypse set RPG based on Mutant - År Noll, the Swedish RPG from Free League Publishing released in English by Modiphius Entertainment. At thirty-two pages, it is a slim supplement that presents various scenario set-ups and situations as well as new rules that can quickly and easily be dropped in a GM’s campaign and the sectors of his Zone map. This includes four Special Zone Sectors as per those given in the core rulebook and a set of new rules for long journeys and new monsters. Note that the review will contain some spoilers.

Given its length, what is impressive about Zone Compendium 1 – Lair of the Saurians is its productions values. They are the same as those of the core rulebook. The supplement is done in full colour, the illustrations are good, and the maps—more exploded diagrams than actual maps—are nicely done. True, they do not show every detail, but they show enough and from their overall descriptions, the GM will be able to describe the rest of the location with ease. Overall, this is a sturdy little book that feels good in the hand.

The four Special Zone Sectors in Zone Compendium 1 – Lair of the Saurians consist of the ‘Lair of the Saurians’, ‘The Oracle of the Silver Egg’, ‘A Seed of Evil’, and ‘The Family Homestead’. The first of these, the eponymous ‘Lair of the Saurians’ details a giant rusty metal tube that has washed up ashore on an island that is said to full of artefacts, but also home to plenty of Zone monsters. It is in fact a submarine, now home to a tribe of lizardmen or Saurians who do not understand what they have or what exactly it is they live in. The Saurians and their ‘tube’ is initially something for the player characters to investigate and then decide what they want to do about the Saurians. Do they attempt an alliance? Open trade relations? Or take it for themselves and the Ark? The arrival of scrap pirates are likely to spur both the player characters and the Saurians to action. Of course the location and the fact that this Special Zone Location involves a submarine does limit where it can be placed—a coastal location is required.

‘The Oracle of the Silver Egg’ is said to be home to a man who can any answer any question  and perhaps even point the way towards Eden, the refuge where safety from the Zone is said to be found. He is also said to prophesize the future. So many flock to gain answers and word of the future, but the price they are expected to pay is high—perhaps too high… Reminiscent of the Duncan Jones film, Moon, ‘The Oracle of the Silver Egg’ is more difficult to use than the previous ‘Lair of the Saurians’, but the GM should play up the weirdness of the environment with its highly advanced, ‘Enclave’ technology that this Special Zone Sector is previewing. (‘Enclave’ technology is to be detailed in a later supplement.)

Thankfully, the third entry, ‘A Seed of Evil’, is much, much easier to use as takes a campaign back to its start, the Ark where the character grew up and survived. Part of character creation in Mutant: Year Zero is to build a set of relationships both with the other player characters and NPCs within the Ark. Further, any expedition taken by the player characters out into the Zone is preceded by an Assembly where they discuss and decide the directions in which the Ark will develop. ‘A Seed of Evil’ folds neatly into this campaign framing because there is something that is making several of the NPCs that the player characters know, act differently. Although there is some investigation and combat involved, there is plenty of opportunity for roleplaying and interaction as the player characters have the chance to prove themselves to Ark more directly than going out and returning on expeditions.

Lastly, ‘The Family Homestead’ provides the GM with a weird throwback encounter to present to his players. This can be out in the Zone as the player characters are in the actual process of travelling or when they come across the home of a family of nine headed by Daddy Dearest Ragnar and Mommie Dearest Sveah as they go about their ever so normal activities. Mow the lawn, take their many dogs for a walk, go shopping in the abandoned shopping malls out in the Zone, take caravan holidays, and on. Which in the day and age of the post-apocalypse is going to appear really quite odd. In fact, once the player characters begin interacting with them, the GM should start playing up the weirdness, the abnormality of their normality, and so on. Part of this should be that the family are to an extent the equivalent of ‘Rednecks’ attempting to live the good life. Much like the Saurians, this family can be allies or enemies, but they should never escape being monsters…

Rounding out Zone Compendium 1 – Lair of the Saurians is a set of rules for handling long journeys. This takes the scale up from the standard one mile wide sectors of the Zone to twenty miles per sector. It includes a new Sector Environment tables and guidelines for the placement of ruins and artefacts. This is followed by a set of tables for creating and naming monsters.

Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 1 – Lair of the Saurians packs a lot of gaming punch into a relatively few number of pages. There are situations and encounters here that can add to a campaign immediately, but which also have the depth and detail to develop the campaign. Whether running a campaign of his own devising, the contents Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 1 – Lair of the Saurians is an excellent resource whose slots into any campaign.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

For Cultured Friends VI

The sixth issue of The Excellent Travelling Volume continues James Maliszewski’s support for TSR Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, only the third RPG to be published and the first to come with its own background. It also marks his continued involvement in the ‘Old School Renaissance’, though one more ‘cultured’ and not as prominent or as public as its once leading light via his blog, Grognardia. That return is notable this year for his redevelopment and presentation anew of The Cursed Chateau, his funhouse adventure for the Old School Renaissance for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and that in addition to the release of the inaugural issue of Imperio, the fanzine dedicated to the author’s RPG of Imperial Science Fiction, Thousand Suns. Previous issues—one, two, three, four, and five—of The Excellent Travelling Volume have all showcased his campaign, House of Worms, about the doings of members of a clan based in the roofed city of Sokátis, but this the sixth issue, derives more readily from the now nearly two-year old campaign. Further, this issue also draws from the author’s second campaign, this one set in and around the Mu’ugalavyáni city of Gashchné.

Which is why the first article in The Excellent Travelling Volume, Issue No. 6 is devoted to the creation of ‘Livyáni and Tsoléini Characters’. Essentially, as provided in previous editions of the fanzine, this article provides changes and additions to the character creation rules in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, as well as presenting the differences in terms of religion, society, clan structure, and so on in comparison to Tsolyánu characters. There are some cultural differences covered too, for example, the institution of Aridáni in Livyánu and amongst the Tsoléini. The article is drawn from material previously presented in Swords & Glory, Volume 1: Tékumel Sourcebook to which the author has added elements of his own invention. These are all excellent additions, useful for NPCs as well as player characters. Given that the Tsoléini come from a distant archipelago, that of Tsoléi, one interesting use for them might be as player characters in the classic ‘Straight off the Boat’ beginning campaign.

The next addition is ‘Spells of the Inimical Races’, which examines the spells used by the Hlúss, the Ssú, and the Shunned Ones, the latter in particular. This includes spells known to, and used by, mankind, but which these other races have their own variants. So these include Create food and drink, Charm creature, and The vapour of the death. To these are added new spells, such as Comminution, which reduces metal items to dust, and Deliquesence, which reduces the target to a puddle of protoplasmic goo, both of which are cast by the Ssú. 

The Dry Bay of Ssu’úm is described in two articles. The first, the ‘Bestiary’, gives three new creatures to be found in the region, such as the Ajináthu or ‘The Creaker’ and Mrígako or ‘The Brain Plant’, whilst the second, ‘The Dry Bay of Ssu’úm’, is a gazetteer of the region. This a frontier region, caught between the various empires, and sometimes different factions within the empires, even as some local leaders agitate and campaign for unification of the region. The gazetteer also comes with a map and the description includes some pointers towards running adventures in the region, though perhaps the author will revisit the region with adventure ideas or the well done patrons—as seen in previous editions of the fanzine.

‘The Village of Kumashkékkur’ describes a location in more detail. Closer to the author’s campaign base of Sokátis, the village is nicely mapped, its clans and notables nicely detailed, but in sense it is not the ‘actual’ village as per the author’s campaign. This is because there are still secrets to be revealed about Kumashkékkur—secrets that have not come to light in the campaign—and because some of the information in the description is intentionally false. This information may become important to the author’s House of Worms campaign in due course, but more importantly, what it means is that the article has not been written with the wider fanbase in mind, but rather with the players of the campaign in mind. It is difficult not to feel a little short changed by this given that it is written for a few rather than the wider, paying fanbase. 

Accompanying ‘The Village of Kumashkékkur’ is ‘The Forest Ruins’, a description of another location near the village. There are secrets here that will be of interest to any religious scholar—especially if they are of a worshipper of Ksárul—though the GM will need to devise reasons for the player characters to investigate the location. Otherwise, the description of the ruins feels a little underwritten, but is a decent above ground ‘dungeon’.

The Excellent Travelling Volume, Issue No. 6 feels underwhelming in comparison to earlier issues. The problem is twofold. First is the intentional lack of given information about Kumashkékkur, but second is the lack of remedy to that. Ideally, a good set of patrons or encounters or simply, adventure ideas, could have helped the GM make the village his own—without having to rely on secrets that have not been divulged in the issue—and given reason for the adventurers to perhaps look for, and explore, ‘The Forest Ruins’. Similarly, patrons for use with ‘The Dry Bay of Ssu’úm’ would also have useful

Physically, The Excellent Travelling Volume, Issue No. 6 is solidly presented. Both its artwork and its cartography continue to be excellent. That said, another edit would not have gone amiss, but there is a solidly assured feel to this issue.

Like previous issues, The Excellent Travelling Volume, Issue No. 6 is worth having on the shelf if you are a ‘petalhead’, a fan of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne. It is not though, up to the standards of previous issues, not because it lacks interesting content or a mix of interesting content, but rather because it lacks the application of previous content. The Excellent Travelling Volume, Issue No. 6 is definitely one for the fans—just not necessarily the casual ones.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Fanzine Focus V: Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed how another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Winged Snail Plays RPG’s (sic) is a small fanzine—quite literally at roughly an A6 size—that looks at getting into roleplaying for the first time. The inaugural issue, Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Begin at the Beginning’ looked at how to get into the hobby as a new player and being a good player through the experiences of the author, Sarah E. Hoffman. With the second issue, Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’, the author takes a further step into the hobby by looking at what it is like to be a GM or referee.

Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’ beings with a decent description of what a GM, framing it in terms of taking the role of the Banker in Monopoly, but explaining how the GM facilitates the game and works to ensure that everyone has fun. It tells how to create a game in knowing your players’ personalities and keeping it small—two to four players rather than six; to organise the GM’s supplies, what to do prior to the game, during the game, and after the game. So it suggests and advises that it is better to choose a more well-known and popular rules system because it will be familiar and better supported, to use rules that you understand, to use ‘canned’ (or pre-written) adventures, and during play to directly ask the players if a particular rules work or explain a particular rule or explain the consequences of an action. After the game, the advice is take notes, ask for specific feedback, and schedule the next game. 

The advice is never less than to the point—unsurprising given the paucity of space in Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’—and perhaps whilst familiar to some, it does not mean that such advice cannot be stated or given. Unfortunately, from the very first page of Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’, it is clear that the author’s experiences in the hobby have not always been positive ones and have not been positive ones of late. In both the introduction and in the last few pages, Sarah talks about the ‘player from hell’, in her words, “…the doubchebag player, the rules lawyer, the railroading player, and every other conceivable rude social behavior imaginable.” Their existence and her experiences with players of this type and with the GMs who do not fulfil their responsibility to police and curb such behaviour, is why she has stopped being a player and switched to being a GM. She also states that the, “…constant negative interaction with rude players is the reason so many interested individuals never begin or become long term players.”

This is such a disappointing reason to switch roles. Most players switch to being the GM because they want the chance to run a game and present adventures to the other players. They do not change roles necessarily because of bad players and deciding to, or being forced to, for this reason, is terrible indictment upon our hobby. Or rather not entirely, since the author also makes the point that she does not actively play in real life in the tabletop roleplaying community of Yellowknife in the North West Territories, which is where she lives, for these reasons. So more a terrible indictment upon our hobby in Yellowknife in the North West Territories.

This is not to say that the problem does not exist at large in the hobby, such immature players do exist. It is one reason why the gaming community adopts conduct and harassment policies for its public events, its conventions, and so on, and certainly in this gamer’s experience, such poor behaviour is anything other than the norm. At home, around the gaming table, it is another matter, and that is where individuals in the hobby need to self-police. Not only the GM, but also the players too. There is no indication in Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’ that the author raised these issues with the offending player or the player’s GM, and it would have been interesting to read what the effect was had she done so… Further, could she not have recruited the players and GMs she likes to form a group where such issues would not such an issue?

As good as the material is in Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’, the second issue of this fanzine is disappointing. The advice is good, it is clearly presented, it is to the point, and it is helpful, and overall, the second issue of Winged Snail Plays RPG’s is more assured and well written. It disappoints though because of the sting in the tail of the author’s poor playing experiences, yet more so because the reader is left wondering about these poor playing experiences and their consequences. Her experiences would make the fanzine more personal and more interesting. That perhaps is the challenge for the third issue of Winged Snail Plays RPG’s, that and perhaps attending a gaming convention…

Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’ is not really a booklet for the experienced GM (or player). Most of the advice will familiar to them, but this does not mean that it is bad advice. In fact, the advice is sound and is clearly born of personal experience—though in the case of Winged Snail Plays RPG’s – ‘Game Master Basics’, not really quite enough.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Fanzine Focus V: Wormskin—Issue One

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, such as The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly.

Launched and published in December, 2015, by Necrotic Gnome Productions, Wormskin—Issue One introduces Dolmenwood, an isolated woodland setting designed to be used with Labyrinth Lord and similar Retroclones based on Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Expert Dungeons & Dragons and to be dropped into most temperate, European-style campaign settings with relatively little fuss. Inspired by the works of Lord Dunsany, William Morris, and Susanna Clarke, the intention is that Dolmenwood is a mythical wood, an ancient place of tall trees and thick soil, rich in fungi and festooned with moss and brambles. There can no doubt that this intent is present in the pages of Wormskin—Issue One, but the fanzine has one fundamental flaw that undermines the content. This review will come to that flaw in due time.

Wormskin—Issue One opens with a decent map of Dolmenwood, both the west and the east parts, done in quite nice detail. There is no background to the map, but there is plenty of detail to the map. The fanzine’s first substantial article is a full Race-Class, ‘The Moss Dwarf’. This is an eight-Level demi-human species with an affinity for the dank plants and moulds of deep forests like that of Dolmenwood. Short and stocky, Moss Dwarves have Fertile Flesh like toadstools growing from their joints and parsley chest hair, are immune to fungal spores, and practice ‘Knacks’ such Bird Lore, Nose Wise, and Pocket Lore. Each Moss Dwarf specialises in only one of these and gains greater understanding of each Knack as he acquires Levels. Thus a Moss Dwarf with Pocket Lore knows how many items someone has in his pocket, but at higher Levels knows what they are and can cause them to leap out of the pocket or swap places with items in the Moss Dwarf’s possession. All Moss Dwarves come to speak with plants and enter fungal symbiosis. There are details of Moss Dwarf armour and NPCs, but oddly, not on Moss Dwarf names—which is a pity. As a Race-Class, the Moss Dwarf is undoubtedly quirky and interesting, but whether you would use it away from the Dolmenwood or similar settings is another matter.

This is followed by ‘Fungi of Dolmenwood’, a list and table of the thirty types of fungi that grow in the woods. The descriptions includes name, form, colouration, odour, and flavour as well as its effects. So Devil’s Grease is found as slime in the cracks, is black with ultraviolet aura, has the odour of off sausage, and the flavour of goose grease, and works as a strong psychedelic. The thirty range from the nourishing to the poisonous, though annoyingly one effect does require reference to a future issue of Wormskin. Accompanying the listing are notes on identifying, consuming, and buying fungi, which allows the DM to further apply them to his game. Apart from the reference to a then unavailable issue of Wormskin, ‘Fungi of Dolmenwood’ is definitely the best article in Wormskin—Issue One and easily applicable to almost any campaign setting.

The second Race-Class in Wormskin—Issue One is The Grimalkin. This a ten-Level race of near-immortal fey cats that under certain circumstances transforms from its current form into the next stage of its life cycle and round and round again, and so on... So for example, the ‘Estray’, the humanoid form, can transform into the fat and stupid ‘Chester’ form if it eats too many mundane rats, or into a ‘Wilder’, its primal, feral form that is near invisible, if it is mortally wounded. Of the three forms, the Chester possesses no Class abilities, but the Estray can pick locks and cast magic spells and Wilder is semi-visible, stronger, and can move into the Otherworld, though is vulnerable to sunlight. All Grimalkin can spot the invisible, is susceptible to cold iron and silver, but when having drunk fermented catnip juice, can turn into a fighting drunk! Also included a a few new spells particular to the Grimalkin. Like the Moss Dwarf Race-Class, there is no discussion or inclusion of names for the Grimalkin, though several new spells are given. The challenge in playing a Grimalkin is essentially that of roleplaying a civilised cat, but one prone to changes in form and temperament. Despite its oddity, the Grimalkin would probably better than the Moss Dwarf in settings and campaigns outside of Dolmenwood as the Race-Class does not necessarily feel part of the mythic wood setting that its inclusion suggests. It is a weird Class, so the campaign itself would need an injection of the odd for it to fit, but it still could be fun to play.

Rounding out Wormskin—Issue One is a description of a monster, the Root Thing. These are semi-humanoid tree root things that hunt humanoids so that they can die and decompose and feed their trees. The description is fairly basic, but for a simple monster like this it need not be complicated and the Root Thing hints at the more horrific elements to be found in Dolmenwood and is a decent addition to the region, though it would be suitable to add to other locations.

The five articles in Wormskin—Issue One all do one thing. They give the DM interesting things to put in and encounter in Dolmenwood. What the fanzine does not do is tell the DM what Dolmenwood is (beyond being a mythic wood), how big it is, or give any physical description or any other details about it as a place. A map is provided—and a decent map it is too that can also be found here—but that is all. Which means that as good as the content to be found in this first issue of Wormskin, it is fundamentally useless in terms of using it as part of the Dolmenwood setting because there is no context. There is nothing to stop the DM from using it in his own campaign, but in terms of his running a Dolmenwood set campaign, Wormskin—Issue One is utterly useless.

Behind its excellent cover, Wormskin—Issue One is physically nicely presented and self-assured. There are no editing issues, the layout is clean and tidy, and above all, it does not feel amateurish. The illustrations are reasonable and do fit the mythic feel that the authors are aiming for.

The content in Wormskin—Issue One manages to achieve something quite odd. It is not just good, it is also engaging and flavoursome and should the DM want to add any of it to his own campaign, it would be easy to do. Yet its content is flawed in such easily addressed ways that should the DM want to use any of it in the context of Dolmenwood, as good as the material is, such an endeavour is in no way supported by Wormskin—Issue One. Not just the disappointing lack of context, but the absence of simple things like names for the issue’s two Race-Classes. Essentially Wormskin—Issue One is not a standalone fanzine, but part of a ‘partwork’, but one that does not start with the first issue, but somewhere in the middle…

What Wormskin and Dolmenwood really need is Wormskin—Issue Zero.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Primates Proud

The latest title from Goblinoid Games is Apes Victorious: Rules for Science Fantasy Adventures on a Planet Ruled by Apes. This is an Old School Renaissance RPG in which astronauts from a future that never was land on an Earth where humanity blew itself to hell in a nuclear war forcing them to regress to the state whilst apes have evolved to become the dominant species in the post-apocalypse. From the outset and from the sparse, but great artwork, it is clear what this RPG is. Simply, Apes Victorious: Rules for Science Fantasy Adventures on a Planet Ruled by Apes is the Planet of the Apes RPG. Now there have been ape-based RPGs before, most notably Terra Primate: Savage Roleplaying in a World Where Man is the Missing Link, published by Eden Studios, but they have been lightly inspired by the Planet of the Apes series, rather than being directly inspired by the franchise as Apes Victorious is. Even then, Apes Victorious is only inspired by specific parts of the Planet of the Apes canon, in particular, the 1968 film Planet of the Apes, the 1970 film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and the 1974 Planet of the Apes television series and the 1975 Return to the Planet of the Apes animated series.

Apes Victorious then is an RPG set on the east coast of North America where the Apes have established a strictly racially divided society—Bonobos are social and serve as spies and diplomats; Chimpanzees are scholars studying both the past and the future; Gorillas are soldiers; and Orangutans are both politicians and members of the clergy, dictating policy for all aspects of Ape society, including science. What remains of Humanity on the surface of the New Earth consists of mute, simple herd creatures that often raid Ape-run farms and as a consequence when rounded up by Gorilla soldiers are either culled or put to simple, hard work. What remains of Humanity below the New Earth are the Underdwellers, long since adapted to live in the bunkers their ancestors survived the war in and advanced both technology and psionic powers. Though they rarely come to the surface as they are susceptible to ultraviolet rays from the Sun, they continue to monitor Ape activities, sometimes even going as far as send in ape-robot spies… Into this situation crashland Astronauts, star travellers from before the Nuclear War that brought about the New Earth who have been flung forward in time thousands of years. To them, the ‘New Earth’ is a strange new planet with weird parallels in evolution. They have knowledge of the past and advanced sciences, but face fierce opposition and suppression from an Ape society unwilling to countenance the idea that Humans might be able to speak, let alone be intelligent. Will they discover the truth of their situation and where they are and when they do, will they attempt to escape back to their past or stay and change the future?

Characters in Apes Victorious combine Race and Class, just like Basic Dungeons & Dragons, Labyrinth Lord, and other retroclones. Thus all Astronauts are Human, all Gorillas are soldiers, and so on. Apes Victorious offers seven Classes—Astronaut, Bonobo Agent, Chimpanzee  Scholar, Gorilla Soldier, Humanoid, Orangutan Politician, and Underdweller. The Astronaut has survival skills, general technical and scientific knowledge and skills to understand the the technology of the past and the future, plus a field of expertise in say art, computers and electronics, and medicine. The Bonobo Agent is rarely surprised, has fast reflexes, is socially adept, and is trained in climbing and sleight of hand. The Chimpanzee Scholar specialises in either Archaeology, Behavioural Science, or Medicine and can conduct research into these fields of study. The Gorilla Soldier is physically strong and strong-willed, in particular against fear or Psionic effects. The Humanoid is tough, but mute, and is capable of surviving in the wilderness. The Orangutan Politician is a priest-scientist capable of conducting research like the Chimpanzee Scholar, but not as effectively, possesses some knowledge of the past thanks to their religious studies and can also order other apes to carry out tasks. The Underdweller has infravision and can see in the dark as well as having psionic abilities.

It should be noted that these nine Classes are fiercely underwritten.  The worst example of this is the Humanoid Class, which only has five Levels, but other Classes also suffer from a lack of depth and development. For example, the Gorilla Soldier simply has his strength and his Hit Points and does not grow or change in anyway, while the Underdweller has psionic abilities and little more. Compare this to the Bonobo Agent that can get sneakier and more conniving, the Chimpanzee Scholar who can study and learn more, and the Orangutan Politician who can rise in power and give more orders. Now this understandable given the source material and its tight focus in terms of storytelling, for there is not a huge canon upon which to draw. Which leaves the players with little to draw upon and a lot of effort to be made if such characters are going to be interesting.

Characters are created by the traditional method of rolling three six-sided dice for the six attributes, which in Apes Victorious are Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Charisma, and Psionic Potential. Various modifiers are derived from these stats, all taken from one single table which is not always clear in its meaning and involves a bit of flipping back and forth. Once done, a player decides on a Class, notes down his character’s Class abilities, agrees to his character’s starting equipment with the Ape Master—as the GM is known in Apes Victorious—and the character is done. (Equipment in Apes Victorious is divided between the three categories of the RPG’s Classes—Astronaut, Apes, and Underdweller.)

Doctor Erin Schaefer
First Level Astronaut

STR 09
CON 11 (Resist Trauma 85%)
DEX 16 (Defence Modifier -2, Missile Attack Bonus +2, Initiative Adjustment +1)
INT 14  (Research & Technology Modifier +5%)
CHA 15 (Reaction Adjustment -1)
PSI 10

Hit Points 5

Class Abilities
Foraging; Understand Underdweller Technology 55%; Aeronautics, Astronomy, & Earth Sciences 1-2; Medicine 1-2

Pistol, knife, backpack, canteen, medkit, rations

One major advantage that Underdwellers do have is that of Psionics. The Underdweller Class has Illusory Projection and ESP as its basic powers, but each will have a randomly power in addition. These other powers include Empathy, Telepathy, Empathic Projection, Telekinesis, Hypnosis, and Telekinetic Attack. There are other powers listed in the book, but these are not available to player characters. Each power has a cost to use and as long as a character has Psi points available—equal to his Psi Potential attribute—he can continue using his powers. If a power is used against an NPC, then Psionic combat ensues, which consists of the combatants rolling under their respective Psi Potential stats, with the character with the higher Psi Potential stat having a bonus.

As befitting a retroclone, Apes Victorious employs a mix of roll high and roll low dice rolls. Skill rolls are roll low, attribute rolls are roll low, combat rolls are roll low (so that a roll of one is always a hit and a roll of twenty is always a miss), whilst saving throws are roll high. The game does not use Armour Class, but instead employs a single Character Attack Table wherein a character’s Class and Level determines his ‘Roll To-Hit’ number, which of course is modified by the attacker’s Attacks and Damage and Missile Attack Bonuses and armour possessed by the target—worn or natural. What this means is that Apes Victorious uses the equivalent of a descending Armour Class, but instead of then having to roll high as in Dungeons & Dragons, characters have to roll low. Now where it gets wonky is in the sentence, “In complete darkness or attacking against invisible creatures, there a penalty of -4 to hit.” This is a holdover from previous Old School Renaissance RPGs, but it is not entirely clear whether this should be applied to the ‘Roll To-Hit’ number (the equivalent of Armour Class) or the number rolled when making the attack. This is further exacerbated in the Armour description given in the bestiary where Armour is a modifier to attack rolls against a creature with a negative number representing natural armour or quickness and a positive number representing physical vulnerability or lack of speed. So what is the penalty applied to? If a minus number is applied to the roll, then that effectively improves the roll, not penalises it. If it is instead applied to the ‘Roll To-Hit’ number, then that makes more sense as that would would lower  the ‘Roll To-Hit’ number and thus make the attack roll harder, but it could have been made clearer in the text. That said, using a mix of roll low and roll high rolls does not help the situation.

Given that Apes Victorious is weird enough with the addition of talking apes and mutant humans, it pleasingly keeps it bestiary quite low key. The weird and the wacky beings and things to found in other post apocalypse set RPGs, are not to be found here. Its bestiary mostly consists of mutated creatures like the Coywolf, the Arctic Hyena, and the Giant Fanged Toad, but in the Forbidden Zone can be found Insectoids, Cerebral Jellies, and Robot Guardians. More attention is paid to the setting of Apes Victorious and its background, in particular examining the societies and technologies of both Apes and Underdwellers. There is plenty here to help the Ape Master portray them both as well as notes on playing a character from the 1970s if playing an astronaut. Various themes are discussed, each particular to the various character types. These are essentially campaign types, whether it is the Astronauts attempting to get back to their home and time or seeking the Underdwellers, the Apes hunting the Astronauts or investigating the Underdwellers, or the Underdwellers exploring their fantastic underworld whilst fending off interest from the surface world. There is some discussion too of groups made up mixed Classes, but the options for such groups are more limited, much like the source material. Various adventure locations are also described, including a map of the future North America, plus there is also a table of Ape names (unfortunately no table of Underdweller names).

Rounding out Apes Victorious is a scenario, ‘Escape Planet Ape’, which has the characters as Astronauts dropping onto a strange planet to locate the crew of another spaceship. It is a decent little affair, one that nicely introduces the setting and the difficulties that the intelligent Astronauts will face in world where Apes fear and hate them. Lastly, there are conversion tables for Goblinoid Games other titles, including Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, and Spaceships & Spacemen 2e. Of the three, Apes Victorious would work better with Mutant Future and Spaceships & Spacemen 2e, plugging more easily in terms of theme into Mutant Future.

Physically, Apes Victorious is a decent digest-sized booklet. It could do with an edit here or there, but for the most part is very readable. It is lightly illustrated, but the artwork is clear, simple, and excellent.

Apes Victorious is hampered by a problem or two. The first is that whilst they do work, the rules could have been better presented and explained, especially given their simplicity. Further it would have made more sense had the rules been simply roll one way for everything, not roll low for this and roll high for that. Perhaps the setting might even have been served by a more solid rules system, perhaps the ‘Pacesetter’ mechanics which Goblinoid Games has used in Rotworld: A Game of Survival Horror Against Undead Flesh Eaters and Cryptworld: Chilling Adventures into the Unexplained is the other. The second is that some of the character Classes are very underwritten such that the players may left wondering what to do with them in comparison to other Classes. Again this might have been better addressed using another set of mechanics, but having one set of mechanics at least means that an Ape Master can easily adapt the content of Apes Victorious to a system of his choice.

Despite its problems, there is everything in Apes Victorious to get a Planet of the Apes-style campaign launched, though more support would be welcome. Perhaps some scenarios that focus on Ape, Underdweller, and mixed groups as well as Astronauts? In the meantime, the background and material the RPG presents is accessible and easily adapted or plugged into other settings and RPGs. Above all, Apes Victorious is a delightful emulation of its source material. Whilst there is no such thing as an actual Planet of the Apes RPG, there can be no doubt that Apes Victorious is the very nearest thing. You could almost say that Apes Victorious: Rules for Science Fantasy Adventures on a Planet Ruled by Apes apes the Planet of the Apes RPG that never was.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

A Yuletide Domesday

The Yuletide Spirit and Trouble at T'Mill is the second supplement released for Maelstrom Domesday, the Norman set RPG published by Arion Games as a prequel and second edition to the highly regarded 1984 RPG, Maelstrom. This new RPG is set in 1086, some twenty years after the Norman invasion of 1066, and presents a country still recovering from repeated invasions—by the Scots and the Danes; from repeated rebellions and suppressions within; and finally from the ‘Harrying of the North’, the violent suppression of not just a series of Anglo-Saxon uprisings, but of the Anglo-Saxon peoples in the region, resulting in the death of tens of thousands. This is the year in which the Domesday Book, a great survey of the men and lands of the King William the Conqueror is completed, even as the king’s attention continues to be divided between consolidating his rule over England and holding off the French king’s designs upon Normandy. Thus the king’s men cannot be everywhere and when his peace is disrupted, the taxes cannot be collected, there are further signs of rebellion, or things that cannot truly be explained, other powerful men of the kingdom are prepared to step in to support both king and church. Often they cannot act directly and arrange to have their agents act for them—agents such as the player characters, who each have had some kind of encounter with the supernatural that is the Maelstrom…!

Characters in Maelstrom Domesday are ordinary men and women—they can be archers, beggars, craftsmen, huntsmen, knights, ladies, men-at-arms, outlaws, peasants, priests, squires, and wisemen/wisewomen. In the default campaign set-up, the characters each have an encounter with something weird and been employed by a local lord to investigate strange things going on in his holdings. It should be noted that this is historical game, which means that there are many occupations that will not be available to female characters. Further whilst magic using characters are possible, it is rare that one will be rolled up during character creation. In fact, it is far more likely that character will have theological knowledge than knowledge of magic, though knowledge of the supernatural will also not be uncommon, though frowned upon.

The Yuletide Spirit and Trouble at T'Mill presents two short adventures that can each be run in a single session or so. Like The Beast of Ledsham, both are set in isolated locations and both involve hauntings of a sort. Trouble at T'Mill was originally packaged as the Maelstrom Domesday Quickstart, whilst The Yuletide Spirit was released on its own. In The Yuletide Spirit, the player characters have been sent by their liege lord to investigate sightings of a black dog in a nearby village. This could have been the ‘beast of Ledsham’, but now in the depths of winter, they find themselves caught out as the weather turns and they are forced to seek shelter. This is at an isolated grange or monastic farm which belongs to the abbey of St. Mary’s in York. It is worked by a mix of monks and lay brothers, who will welcome the characters with some slight reluctance, though mostly because they are busy with their farm work and their religious observances.

All this takes place on Christ Mass Eve and after they bed down for the night, they are awoken by ghostly chanting in Latin. The question is, what is the cause? As investigators into the odd and the supernatural for their liege lord, the characters are bound to investigate. This will not actually take all that much investigation, but it is enough for a single session.

With a title echoing a certain Monty Python sketch, Trouble at T'Mill takes place in the manor and village of Welburn. The characters are sent there for two reasons. First, their patron has an important guest and wants them out of the way. Second, Welburn has not been sending the milled grain it should, only unmilled grain, and their patron wants to know why. This is a lengthier, more involved scenario than the earlier The Yuletide Spirit, with more villagers to interact with, as the characters attempt to find out why the miller has stopped working in the mill.

The greater array of NPCs means that the Referee will have more to work with and have more in portraying them. Similarly he should have as much fun, if not more, portraying what happens if the characters spend any time in the mill. The cause of the problem is a relatively obvious and straightforward and it is a plot that has been seen elsewhere before. This should not necessarily be held against the scenario or its author, as it is handled in as unfussy a manner as you would wish.

Physically, The Yuletide Spirit and Trouble at T'Mill is presented in an open and accessible fashion. It feels untidy and the layout could be cleaner and easier. It should be pointed out that the book does not include the pre-generated players characters that it says that it has. Further, there is no advice as what the Referee should create in terms of pre-generated characters, though some suggestions can be extracted from the text. Better advice would have been a nice touch.

Unfortunately, there is little in the way of support for Maelstrom Domesday and The Yuletide Spirit and Trouble at T'Mill presents two decent scenarios that are easy to run and add to an existing campaign. Or indeed, used as one-shots to showcase the RPG. Of the two, Trouble at T'Mill is the better, deeper showcase, but The Yuletide Spirit is the easier of the two to run and the easier to run in a short time frame. As its title might suggest, The Yuletide Spirit would make a good adventure to run at this time of year. Both scenarios are easier to run and better presented than The Beast of Ledsham, as well as being more accessible. If there is an issue with The Yuletide Spirit and Trouble at T'Mill it is that there are similarities between the two scenarios that might preclude their being run too close together. Their brevity also highlights the fact that Maelstrom Domesday would benefit from longer deeper support, especially in terms of scenarios. Nevertheless, The Yuletide Spirit and Trouble at T'Mill presents a pair of solid scenarios that are easy to add to any campaign or run as one-shots.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Reviews from R'lyeh Christmas Dozen 2016

Since 2001, Reviews from R’lyeh have contributed to a series of Christmas lists at Ogrecave.com—and at RPGaction before that, suggesting not necessarily the best board and roleplaying games of the preceding year, but the titles from the last twelve months that you might like to receive and give. Continuing the break with tradition—in that the following is just the one list and in that for reasons beyond its control, OgreCave.com is not running its own lists—Reviews from R’lyeh would once again like present its own list. Further, as is also traditional, Reviews from R’lyeh has not devolved into the need to cast about ‘Baleful Blandishments’ to all concerned or otherwise based upon the arbitrary organisation of days. So as Reviews from R’lyeh presents its annual Christmas Dozen, I can only hope that the following list includes one of your favourites, or even better still, includes a game that you do not have and someone is happy to hide in gaudy paper and place under that dead tree for you.


The Black Hack
(Gold Piece Publications) $1.99/£1.60

Take the player-facing mechanics of Numenera and meld them with the stripped back set-up of Dungeons & Dragons and what you have is The Black Hack. What this means is that the players get to make all the rolls whilst the GM can get on and run the game, whilst the set-up means that The Black Hack plugs into just about any Dungeons & Dragons style or retroclone available. The simplicity of the mechanics has also led to a number of ‘Hack’ RPGs. Want to investigate the Mythos, then look at The Cthulhu Hack. Want to find redemption or forge yourself anew after a fall from grace in the Whitechapel of the 1890s, then The Jack Hack is perfect. These days, there is a ‘Hack’ for every genre.

Read the full review here.

7th Sea Core Rulebook

(John Wick Presents) $59.99/£49.99

Out of print for almost two decades, the 7th Sea Core Rulebook brings back the original RPG of swashbuckling action, courtly intrigue, exciting exploration, and heroic adventure. This mixes The Three Musketeers, magic, and more in a world inspired by the 17th century in which the players get to roleplay heroes uncovering mysteries, thwarting conspiracies, and so on, using newly redesigned mechanics that encourage wit, storytelling, and action. All presented in a lovely new rulebook in full colour and written to set up and play through fantastic tales in which the player characters take centre stage in the great Age of Sail (and adventure!).

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu

(Z-Man Games) $49.99/£46.99

Once again the cultists of Lovecraft Country are dedicated to bringing about the End Times by summoning the Old Ones to Earth, but this time they seem to working in concert to ensure that not only are the most alien of beings are let loose upon the world, but dread Cthulhu himself is released in watery prison deep in the Pacific Ocean. In Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, the investigators must work together to the cultists from summoning shoggoths which will make their way to the nearest gate and thus summon an Elder God, gather enough clues to shut each of the gates, and stop themselves from going insane. Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu brings the Cthulhu Mythos to the co-operative game design classic that is Pandemic and presents a very tough challenge in which the players play against both the board and the Mythos.

Apes Victorious: Rules for Science Fantasy Adventures on a Planet Ruled by Apes

(Goblinoid Games) $17.99/£14.99

What would you do if you landed on a devastated world where Apes are the primary species and humanity little more than animals? Sounds like the set up for Planet of the Apes? Well not quite, but Apes Victorious, an Old School Renaissance RPG explores a world very similar to it. It presents Classes and campaign ideas to play as Astronauts, the Apes, the mysterious Underdwellers, as well as in a mixed group, but sets everything up for the Astronauts crash landing and discovering the horrible realisation of a future of the 1970s that never was… All together now, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” 

Doors to Darkness: Five Scenarios for Beginning Keepers 

(Chaosium, Inc.) $34.95/£17.99

2016 was a good year for Call of Cthulhu, not only because the Investigator Handbook and Keeper Rulebook were both released in print for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, but because both books were supported by several good scenario anthologies. Not least of which is Doors to Darkness, a collection of five scenarios designed to be used as a set of introductory scenarios for Call of Cthulhu and Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. What this means is that this quintet takes both Keeper and players step-by-step through the various rules for Call of Cthulhu and does without making it obvious, all the whilst presenting good plots and horrifying situations. All five are set in Lovecraft Country, so they also introduce—whilst still leaving its secrets for other supplements—and open up future play to that blighted region of New England. Which means that this anthology is a great starting point for the playing group new to Call of Cthulhu or simply new to the new edition, as well as being both a great entry point for Lovecraft Country and a good collection for the Keeper looking for more Lovecraft Country scenarios.

Read the full review here.

Puppetland: A Storytelling Game with Strings in a Grim World of Make-Believe
(Arc Dream Publishing) $39.99

One of the original ‘New Style’ games, the storytelling RPGs that preceded the Indie Style movement of the noughties, is back after seventeen years and in a beautiful new edition. In this revolutionary RPG, darkness and horror have come to Puppetland with the murder of the Maker at the hands of Punch the Maker-Killer. Now the hubris and ambition of the dictator-puppet has turned Puppetland into a savage autocracy against which the true-hearted puppets of the players valiantly stand. The tales of their heroism will be told in precisely one golden hour each and told in the style of a tale read aloud before bedtime. Can the puppets find tales of hope to tell in a grim world twisted by Punch the Maker-Killer?

Symbaroum Core Rulebook
(Järnringen/Modiphius Entertainment) £34.99

2016 was a great year for the Swedish RPG with several making their way to the English-speaking market, but first and foremost amongst them has to be Symbaroum. This is a dark, rich RPG imbued with a brooding atmosphere and a sense of foreboding set in the young kingdom of Ambria, founded on the ruins of the ancient and long-lost empire of Symbaroum as the refuge for the survivors fleeing north over the mountains from the Kingdom of Alberetor as it fell to an onslaught from the necromantic Dark Lords. Before the young kingdom stands Davokar Forest, ancient woods long grown over an ancient kingdom which hides long secrets which Ambria believes should be hers. Can the adventurers unearth these secrets whilst not breaking the Iron Pact with the Elves that protects the forest?

Read the full review here.

(Stonemaier Games) £69.99

What grabs you first about Scythe is the artwork—the image of giant mechs in rural Europa in an alternate 1920s—but once you get the box open you have great components to match any Euro game (in both wood and plastic). In Scythe, five factions competes to control the territory around The Factory, the last hangover from the Great War, which makes it sound like a combat game and because it has mechs, it looks like a combat game. It is anything other than that, for Scythe is a worker placement-economic engine game which nicely manages the balance between the giving players multiple options and keeping the play brisk and busy. The players work to constantly to upgrade their mechs, build structures to strengthen their hold on territory, enlist new recruits to enhance character abilities, and expand their borders to gain more and better resources. These are of course fed back into economic engine and so play continues. Like every good Euro game, there is no player elimination and the winner is determined when the game ends and not before.

Adventures in Middle-Earth: Player’s Guide
(Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd) $39.99/£26.99

The One Ring is arguably the best RPG to be set in Tolkien’s Middle-earth in forty years of the gaming hobby, which is why it made the Christmas List back in 2011. Perhaps the biggest surprise of 2016 is that its publisher, Cubicle 7 Entertainment, extended the RPG to another game system, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. This after forty years of the two being kept very much apart due to licensing conflicts in the early days of Dungeons & Dragons and essentially, the high magic of Dungeons & Dragons being incompatible with Middle-earth. Set in and around Mirkwood in the years following the events of The Hobbit, Adventures in Middle-Earth: Player’s Guide presents a low magic, stripped back approach to Dungeons & Dragons that focuses on the cultures of the region, the dangers of being abroad on the road, and on the growing threat of the Shadow out of Mirkwood… The result is stronger emphasis on place and on roleplaying that showcases the flexibility of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and the capacity of Middle-earth to do adventures away from the main plots of the source material.

The Things We Leave Behind: Six Adventures into Horror and the Unknown
(Stygian Fox Publishing) $39.99/£26.99

If Doors to Darkness showcased how to take your first steps into Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, then The Things We Leave Behind showcased what the new edition could do for the here and now. It does so with six strong scenarios—two of which are really good—which explore unavoidable fates, dark secrets, and seriously bad choices. Why did a Federal Agent abduct a child and then kill himself? Who are you and what happened to you last night? What caused Karen to run away? What if a ‘hell house’ really was hell? How dangerous can fandom be? Why does a series killer take his victims' body fat? All these questions are given answers that you really do not want to know in this anthology of scenarios that should only be tackled by adults.

Read the review here.

Broodmother Skyfortress
(Lamentations of the Flame Princess 27.50

You remember how in the classic G 1-2-3 Against the Giants series of modules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, you sneaked into the homes of giants who had been stampeding across the land and struck a blow for civilisation, but never once saw evidence of the death and destruction that ten feet tall (plus) humanoids can rent on mankind? Well, you probably do not, but now you can revisit the concept with Broodmother Skyfortress, a scenario for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, in which giant indescribable—but probably not Lovecraftian—things descend from the sky, anchor their cloud fortress to the ground, and go on a rampage! Combining elements of a complete set-up and a toolkit, the Referee being free to set the exact nature of the things and possibly the reason why the adventurers are to ascend to the Skyfortress and penetrate its secrets, Broodmother Skyfortress is a chance for the Referee to kick over the ant’s hill that is his campaign and when all is said and done with this superb scenario, the Referee gets the Greatest Hits of the ol’ Arch-Mage’s essays and game tools into the bargain.

TimeWatch: A Game of Time Travel Action and Investigation
(Pelgrane Press) $49.99/£35.95

As the annus horribilis that is 2016 draws to close, there is yet a final chance to put everything right by turning the clock back. A final chance that involves time travel, being agents of TimeWatch, and a time travel RPG—well all right, just a time travel RPG then… The agents of TimeWatch monitor the timestream from just within the Big Bang watching for signs of intervention and paradox that will resort in history being rewritten. Their foes in this duty includes velociraptor-type sentient dinosaurs from an alternate reality where dinosaurs never went extinct and intelligent cockroaches wanting a balmy and radioactive Earth, as well as rogue TimeWatch Agents and independent time travellers whose well-intentioned idea is to kill Hitler. Players get to be Time Agents from this timeline and from the ones next door; the GM gets multiple campaign frame works, from the classic Time Patrol to Chrono-Horror with the Mythos, to play with; and the RPG’s GUMSHOE System means that the players can easily go get the clues and fight the good fight without having to worry about all that mucking about with temporal causality. Oh TimeWatch is a time travel RPG, so it comes with extra temporal causality then.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

d100 Traveller

Published by FrostByte Books, M-Space: d100 roleplaying in the far future is part of the continuing wave of RPGs originating in Sweden, includling Symbaroum, Mutant Chronicles, and Mutant: Year Zero. Unlike those three RPGs, M-Space is neither Swedish nor European in its origins or its tone, being very much inspired by classic American Science Fiction and classic American Science Fiction RPGs. Further, its mechanics are similarly American in design, being derived from RuneQuest and Basic RolePlaying. Specifically, M-Space uses Mythras Imperative, the streamlined version of Mythras, the new incarnation of the RPG from The Design Mechanism that previously powered RuneQuest 6.

Part of the ‘Mythras Gateway’ program, M-Space is a percentile system that will be familiar to anyone who has played any RPG using the Basic Roleplaying system, whether that is Call of Cthulhu, Hawkmoon, or Ringworld. Stats are generally rated between one and eighteen, the primary mechanic is skill based and skills are fundamental to the game, everyone has hit locations, and so combat is fairly deadly. Character creation is a matter of rolling stats and assigning points to skills derived from the character’s Culture and Career—M-Space gives Rural, Urban, and Orbital as its possible Cultures, plus free to assign skill points. Skills themselves are divided into Standard skills, which everyone knows, and Professional Skills, specialised skills that a character only knows from his Culture and his Career. Most notable of the skills is Combat Style, essentially each a package that represents training in a number of weapons. So for example, Combat Style (Bodyguard) might cover the use of Handgun, Unarmed Combat, and Evade, whereas Combat Style (Merkrai’an Rider) could include spear, knife, and brawl. The major addition to combat in comparison to other Basic Roleplaying RPGs are Special Effects, conditions such as Blind Opponent, Bypass Armour, and Rapid Reload that come into play when a combatant rolls better than an opponent. A character will also have Passions—for and against people, organisations, places, and ideas—that can be used to help augment skills for particular actions, serve as roleplaying hooks, and indicate elements of a campaign to focus on.

Our sample character is a bureaucrat who trained to be a pilot, but washed out due to low fitness evaluations. Instead he entered the civil service where his space operations training saw him posted to the Customs & Excise Transit Authority. He is ambitious and wants to prove himself as good as any spacer. He has a strong dislike of smugglers and any who would besmirch the good name of pilots or attempt to undermine what he sees as the fair and just efforts of the Customs & Excise Transit Authority.

Chae-Won Daniel
Age 41

Culture: Orbital
Career: Official

STR 13 CON 07 SIZ 12 DEX 16 INT 16 POW 14 CHA 17

Action Points: 2 Damage Modifier: – Experience Modifier: +1 Healing Rate: 2
Initiative Bonus: +16 Luck Points: 3 Power Points: 14 Movement Rate: 6

Hit Points
Head 4 Chest 6 Abdomen 5 L. Arm 3 R. Arm 3 L. Leg 4 R. Leg 4

Standard Skills:
Conceal 30%, Customs 52%, Deceit 30%, Influence 74%, Insight 73%, Locale 32%, Native Tongue 63%, Perception 50%, Sing 51%, Willpower 52%

Professional Skills:
Bureaucracy 62%, Commerce 63%, Courtesy 63%, Pilot 52%, 

Combat Skills:
Combat Style (Orbital Self-Defence) 49%

Loyalty to Home (Orbital Habitat 242) 70%
Love (Mother) 61%
Hate (Smugglers) 50%

Mechanically, M-Space is a straightforward percentile system. Anyone who has used the Mythras system before will have no issues picking up and playing M-Space just as anyone who has played any RPG using the Basic RolePlaying system will pick the rules up with ease. Beyond most simple circumstances, M-Space covers more complex situations with ‘Extended Conflicts’, such as a poker game, a race through an asteroid belt, a dinner party, and so on. These are handled through opposed rolls, with the winner inflicting damage to the loser’s Conflict Pool, each Conflict Pool being based on one or more of each participant’s stats and being created according to the needs of the situation. So to sneak into a warehouse would mean a character rolling his Stealth versus the guard’s Perception in an extended series of tests with the guard using his Intelligence as his Conflict Pool and the character his Dexterity as his Conflict Pool. 

Unsurprisingly M-Space adds a number of separate systems to handle its Science Fiction—starship design, starship combat, alien creation, world building, and vehicle design. Starship design is done by building modules. For example, one module is required per crewmember or passenger, but four modules are equal to cubicle; one module is roughly equal to one ton of cargo space; a hanger bay equal to four modules would hold an ATV, whilst ten modules would house a fighter or shuttle, and so on. On the whole the system is fairly simple, although it will require some arithmetic. Hyperspace travel is framed as a narrative device, with a Jump rating of between one and five determining how far any Hyperspace Drive will get you. A Jump of one will get your ship to the nearest few stars, a Jump of five across the subsector. Starship combat, unlike standard man-to-man missile and melee combat, involves more maneuvering, typically to gain a better position—offensive or defensive—to avoid incoming fire or to better deliver it. Like the standard combat system, starship combat has its own Special Effects, these being divided into those for Pilot and Gunnery. Like standard combat, a simplified version of the starship combat rules are also provided. Unlike the standard combat system, the starship combat rules do include a fully worked out example.

Alien creation involves addressing a number of points raised as Universal Life Form Parameters, for example, how Strange an alien is, its biosphere, body plans, and so on. Rolling on or choosing from the simple tables gives the answers and essentially allows the GM to build an alien as he goes along. For intelligent aliens the GM can add technology and culture, whilst a similar set of tables will inspire the GM to create worlds where his campaign can be set. Further notable additions include rules for Circles or organisations and how they and the player characters interact and rules for Psionics. They are divided into three spheres—Sense, Mind, and Matter—with Psionic ability, like Telepathy or Farsight, is treated as a separate skill. The rules are a fairly standard approach to Psionics, but what they do not address is how they are acquired. For example, there is no Psionicist Career given.

Rounding out M-Space are some sample space ships and sample alien lifeforms. The latter are better than the former, including as they do the Grept, an intelligent species with an advanced civilisation and society whose hierarchy is based on Psionic ability, and the Deep-Sea Gobbler, a large fish-like species that is on the verge of civilisation. Unfortunately, there is nothing original about the spaceships. From the X Fighter and the Y Fighter to the Corvette and the Destroyer, they are essentially the ships from the Star Wars franchise. Now M-Space is designed to be a toolkit to model various types of Science Fiction, not necessarily specific franchises from Science Fiction. Nowhere else is this modelling done in M-Space. Had the rulebook included sections on using the rules to model various types or franchises of Science Fiction, then these ships would have been a welcome addition to such a section, but because the author does not even bother to change the very similar names, they just stick out like a sore thumb.

Which highlights the biggest problem at the heart of M-Space—how is M-Space to be used? What sort of Science Fiction can it be used to emulate? The author never addresses this nor does he talk about the genre. Part of the problem is that what M-Space really does is emulate another RPG—Traveller, and Classic Traveller at that, published in 1977 by Game Designers’ Workshop. If M-Space is emulating a forty year old RPG, then Traveller—especially in the form of its setting, the Third Imperium—is based more on the Imperial Science Fiction of the 1940s and 1950s, of Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Bertram Chandler, Robert A. Heinlein, H. Beam Piper, E.C. Tubb, and others. The author makes this explicit with the inclusion of the Tech Level Table from Traveller—included as Traveller is under Creative Common license and by the author as a direct homage—but the similarities between Traveller and M-Space run throughout the pages of the the RPG. The inclusion of the Tech Level Table just confirms the similarities.

Further, there is no advice for the GM whatsoever. So in addition to no discussion of Science Fiction and its various subgenres, there is no advice on running M-Space or Science Fiction in general. The lack of advice on running M-Space is compounded by the general lack of examples in the book. Now there is an example of starship combat and there are examples here and there, but there is no example of play or of character generation. None of this will be that much of issue for the experienced GM, but anyone new to roleplaying or science fiction roleplaying will find little to help them here.

Physically, M-Space comes as a black and white square volume. In places the writing could have benefited from a tighter edit and there is no denying that the author’s style is rather dry. Which is no surprise given the toolkit nature of M-Space. In terms of illustrations, each chapter is prefaced by a fully painted piece that works even in grayscale, but elsewhere the artwork is less effective. In particular, many of the thumbnail portraits are superfluous placeholders. Decent enough, but do no more than take up space and do not evoke the RPG’s genre.

As much as M-Space is an emulation of Traveller, it is not particularly strong emulation of Imperial Science Fiction or of any particular subgenre of Science Fiction. It could certainly be used to run a Traveller-like game, or one set in the far future of the Third Imperium, the near futures of Firefly or 2300AD, and with a stretch, even the Pulpier settings of Star Wars and the Star Frontiers RPG. How exactly you would go about recreating any of those settings or creating one of the GM’s own devising, is down to the GM—there is no advice given in M-Space. This is M-Space’s biggest weakness. Essentially, how do you use M-Space? How do I use the tools in M-Space to this or that? Of course, this will not stop an experienced GM who will know how to use the tools provided in M-Space to tinker away and create a setting of his choice, whereas a GM with less experience should probably look at an RPG other than M-Space. This also means that M-Space is not an RPG written with players in mind, as there no hook nor an elevator pitch with which to grab them, because beyond character generation, M-Space is about the tools that GM has to play with.