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

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Fanzine Focus II: The Undercroft #2

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.

Published by the Melsonian Arts Council—also the publisher of he recently released Something Stinks in Stilton—in July, 2014, issue #1 of The Undercroft was an engaging initial issue, full of intriguing and useful material. It was followed in September, 2014 with issue #2 and as with all second efforts, especially after successful first efforts, the problem of the ‘second difficult album’ has to be addressed. Essentially can the editor and authors maintain the consistency and interest achieved by issue #1? It is even a concern raised by the editor in the opening sentences of the issue’s editorial, but it is clear that the editor is not only unconcerned by the problem, he is proud of The Undercroft #2. That is of course, his prerogative, but the truth of the matter is that The Undercroft #2 is a ‘second difficult album’, or rather a ‘second difficult fanzine’.

It opens well enough with Simon Forster’s ‘Between the Cracks’, a nasty little dungeon in which the adventurers explore the laboratory-home of a wizard-alchemist said to live beneath a pool of water. Of course he has not been seen in many years and is said to possessed a valuable treasure. What does lie below is not necessarily treasure, but a horrible monster—a little in the vein of a Hound of Tindalos—waiting for some fool of an adventurer to release it. This is all a bit of a cliché, but no less fun for it. The scenario could have done with giving a motive or two beyond the simple suggestion that the wizard’s laboratory-home be of interest to tomb robbers, but any competent GM should be devise motivations suitable for his campaign and player characters. The simplicity of ‘Between the Cracks’ means that it can easily be added to any wilderness adventure or sandbox.

As to the monster trapped in ‘Between the Cracks’, this is oddly not detailed after the scenario, but instead several pages later in The Undercroft #2. ‘That Which Slips Between’ by Luke Gearing describes a being of inhuman alienness, man-like, but not, that seemingly acts and attacks random. This is because it does and there tables to determine its next course of action and direction. It is also all but unstoppable and the only fact that this may not might drive the players and their characters into frustration is that the thing can just stop and it can head off in a random direction, so its behaviour may not be wholly directed at them. This is where it is quite clever because it leaves the player characters to wonder where and at whom it might strike should just wander off—they might even feel guilty for letting it go free... 

The other monsters presented in The Undercroft #2 are not quite as interesting. In ‘The Pit of Flesh: A Bestiary’, editor Daniel Sell offers the reader the ‘Transplasmic Organic Bifurious Inductors’ and ‘The Visitor’. The former is a ram-horned, porcine-featured ape-like creature created by wizards to turn magical pollutants into slurry that has since been put use dealing with all sorts of waste, from cutting the grass to chomping down on unwanted biological masses… The latter plays the part of the ancient relative, old and sad, insinuating itself into families and feeding on their warmth and their joy, whilst slowing coming to control the members one by one. Of the two, the ‘Transplasmic Organic Bifurious Inductors’ are simply silly, but ‘The Visitor’ has the potential to be quite creepy.

Two or three monsters would seem to be sufficient in a twenty-four page fanzine, but The Undercroft #2 offers yet more. Matthew Adams, best known for his illustrations for the supplement, Yoon-Suin: The Purple Land, draws and describes in turn ‘The Storkman’, ‘The Briar Witch’, and ‘The Snailing’. The first swaps newborn babies for reasons unknown, the second haunts ruins covered in briars, and the third are former misers turned snail-like demons that obsessively hunt and collect certain objects. All three are accorded a full page illustration and barely half a page of text without any stats. What this means is that none of them amount to very much, not helped by either the swathes of empty page or Adams’ scratchy art style which does not really work as full page pieces. Further none of them with stats, so they are not immediately useful. Given how much space they take up—one quarter of the issue—all three entries feel like page fillers. Which is odd given how much little space each takes up on their respective pages.

Fortunately, Tony A. Thompson offers up something with a little more substantial in the form of ‘Piteous Potions’. This details a dozen potions of weirder sort—ones that cause the imbiber’s toes to fall and be replaced by hooves, to become disorientated, make a vow of poverty, and so on. All twelve are weird and wonderful and should put the player characters off trying any potions they find for quite a long time. Lastly, the issue is rounded out with Simon Forster’s ‘Blood’, a sanguine piece of horror fiction that just is.

Physically, The Undercroft #2 is generally well presented, but this is not the problem with the issue. The problem is that too many—in fact, more than half—of its pages are devoted to uninteresting material, primarily, too many monsters. This is not to say that any of the articles in The Undercroft #2 should not have seen print, but rather they should never have seen print all together in the one issue. The result is that a decent scenario and an interesting monster and some potions are drowned in the underwhelming rest of the issue. Ultimately, a poor choice of material and dearth of interesting ideas after the promise of The Undercroft #1 explains why The Undercroft #2 is a difficult second issue.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Fanzine Focus II: Mystic Pangolin #1

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. Similarly, Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game has proved to be popular choice for fanzines. Mystic Pangolin though, is written for use with Swords & Wizardry, Mythmere Games’ interpretation of the original Dungeons & Dragons.

Published in the Autumn of 2014 by Blackie Carbon/Cloudstepping Media, Mystic Pangolin #1 is wholly written by R.G. Anderson and promises to deliver “Old School Fantasy Gaming” in “an ogre’s lunchbox full of goodies”. Putting aside that image, the unfortunate truth is that this first issue does not quite deliver on that claim. The problem is that the fanzine opens with a mundane article and never quite lifts itself above being pedestrian. The first of these is ‘Casks & Barrels – terminology and definitions’, part of the Down ‘n’ Dirty Dungeon Dozens series, which as the title suggests gives the twelve terms and definitions for casks and barrels—and that is it. There is no faulting the facts in the article, but there is no application, no suggestion as to how the details can be used. This is followed by ‘An Elaborate System of Curious Signs – a lexicon of hobo signs for your game world’,  which draws upon the signs used by hobos during the Great Depression to communicate amongst themselves as they rode America’s railways. The suggestion is that they can be used to form the basis of secret signs and the cant between thieves and that is a nice idea. Unfortunately the author only presents the historically used signs and does not take the time to develop any for the fantasy setting that fanzines like Mystic Pangolin is written for. This is a missed opportunity, but this does not mean that a Dungeon Master could not create some of his own, plus as written, the contents of the article could be used with the recently released Gang Busters Basic Rules or indeed with the article on hobos in Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion.

The third article is part of the fanzine’s ‘Randomizer-O-Rama’ series. Initially ‘Books & Scrolls – Alternate treasure and adventure hook’ reads very much like ‘Casks & Barrels – terminology and definitions’, essentially presenting the various ways in which the written word has been preserved, from the clay and wax tablets to scrolls and parchment. It backs these up with a somewhat convoluted table for determining the type, material and condition of the written work and another for determining a manuscript’s contents. Again, the article suffers from a lack of application and a lack of examples. There is though more substance to the fourth article, the first entry in the ‘Ports of Call’ which describes the minehead and ore port of Haeford. The small settlement supplies the nearby towns with lumber and iron, whilst also engaging in some shipbuilding. Although there are one or two pieces of nice description, the write-up of Haeford never really comes alive and never feels like a place that the player characters might visit or do little more than pass through.

Rounding out Mystic Pangolin #1 is ‘The Reliquary of Thazur Zul’, a dungeon adventure for characters of Second to Fourth Levels. Again written for Swords & Wizardry, the adventure also makes use of the Swords & Wizardry Monster Book and Roger S. G. Sorolla’s Varmints and Vermin, so any Dungeon Master wanting to adapt the adventure to the Retroclone of his choice may need to do a little extra work. The scenario has the adventurers hired by a mercantile matriarch to retrieve the head of the corpse of a rival in an effort to restore her family’s fortunes. Unfortunately the matriarch’s sons hid the head in an old tomb and access to that tomb is blocked by rival tribes of Gnolls and Kobolds. The adventure is fairly large, taking up half of the fanzine, but as written is somewhat colourless and flat, lacking the detail and flavour that might bring it alive. There is also a certain degree of artificiality to the set-up, having Kobolds and Gnolls so close together without the latter turning on the former. There is a reason given for the stand-off between the two tribes, but it does not feel enough. Ultimately the adventure is somewhat pedestrian and the Dungeon Master will need to work hard to bring it alive.

Physically Mystic Pangolin #1 is cleanly laid out, but does suffer from a surfeit of white space. It needs another edit as the writing is clumsy in places. The use of photographs and illustrations is decent though. Mystic Pangolin #1 is no longer available in print, but is available as a PDF. Mystic Pangolin #2 is currently available in print.

Ultimately, not everything is going to be great and Mystic Pangolin #1 is not great. It is again pedestrian, lacking the application and the development that would lift it above the mere presentation of facts. This does not mean that a good Dungeon Master could not take the information here and develop it into something more exciting, more inspiring, and more fun, but that would require effort that might be better directed to writing his own material.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Kaves of Karshoon II

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide plus the adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the sixteenth adventure is The Gorgon’s Tears.

The Gorgon’s Tears is written by Cam Banks, co-author of various titles including the Cortex Classic System Role Playing Game, the Leverage: The Roleplaying Game, and the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game. It is the fifth adventure written for characters who have entered the Expert Path, that is of Third Level or higher, and comes as an eight page, 19.36 MB PDF. It is designed as a standalone adventure, but can also be run as a sequel to Beware the Tides of Karshoon, being set in the same city of Gateway. It is also designed to serve as a bridge for characters moving from the Expert Path to the Master Path, that is of Seventh Level or higher. So ideally it should be run for characters of Sixth or Seventh Level. By the end of the adventure, the characters will have either prevented or allowed the return of an ancient evil—and if the latter, then they might even be working for it!

As the scenario opens, word has reached Gateway of the Orc uprising to the south and of the assassination of the Emperor—and the city is in uproar. Certain factions in Gateway advocate separation from Empire’s provincial government and foment civil unrest, inciting mobs to riot and protest. Leading these protests is the wealthy and decadent Gogenthaler Clan, but whilst the clan campaigns for Karshoon’s ‘independence’, something else stalks its members for reasons of its own. It is amidst one of these protests that the player characters find themselves when the scenario opens. By the time the riot is over, they will likely have an offer of employment—from one side or another—and have been presented with a grisly mystery. It is this mystery that lies at the heart of The Gorgon’s Tears

The likelihood is that solving the mystery in The Gorgon’s Tears will involve violence and combat—violence and combat upon the part of the player characters. Yet the scenario does not have to and there is the scope for this too. The scenario’s antagonists are not necessarily hostile towards the player characters and are even prepared to negotiate with them. This is refreshing after the focus in so many of the scenarios for Shadow of the Demon Lord having been on combat and it leaves several of the other scenarios available for the RPG slightly wanting as roleplaying experiences… The scenario almost begs to be expanded and to last longer than the simple one or two sessions that it offers.

The Gorgon’s Tears is a good scenario for Shadow of the Demon Lord, involving a decent mix of mystery, combat, and social interaction. The latter, the social interaction, is the adventure’s most interesting feature, but unfortunately, it is slightly underplayed. Perhaps though, there is scope here for the Game Master—perhaps even Schwalb Entertainment and the author?—to expand The Gorgon’s Tears into the fuller, more interesting, and more rounded scenario it deserves to be.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Lost from the Sun

Thralls of the Sun is the first release supporting Blood & Bronze: A Fantasy Game of High Adventure and Role-Playing, the post-Old School Renaissance Retroclone set in Ancient Mesopotamia published by Cyclopean Games. It is the Bronze Age RPG’s first ‘Adventure Setup’ or scenario, a dungeon of a very different stripe. Designed to be used by beginning or intermediate characters, it offers classic dungeoneering play combined with some solid social interaction—both necessary for completing the adventure. The adventure or dungeon comes in two parts which can either be played separately or together, but if Thralls of the Sun is played as written, it comes with a really good set-up and hook for the player characters.

Thralls of the Sun begins with the player characters in servitude. They have been found guilty of crimes—and each player gets to define his character’s crime or crimes—by the court of Shamash, the Gleaming God of Sippar, and been sentenced to labour in the Slave Pits beneath the golden ziggurat of the Midday Sun where the city’s waterworks are. This sentence is for life! So the adventurers are cast into the darkness below city of Sippar, enslaved and stripped of their goods, expected to work each and every day… until they die. Their aim of course is to escape their sentence and their captivity, but how do they do that in the dark, friendless, and chattel-less?

From this great set-up, the characters are not just going on a dungeon bash. Rather they are preparing to explore the underground network of waterworks, mechanisms, tunnels, and caverns. For this they will need to find equipment—and sources of light in particular—and allies and patrons. Obtaining the latter will probably gain the characters the time to explore, though of course at the direction of their patron. The other benefit to having a patron is that it will give someone to whom the player characters can pay tribute. This is important, for in Blood & Bronze, the only way in which a character can gain Ranks beyond his first is to pay tribute to his patron. Of course, the only way to gain the loot to pay this tribute is to go exploring! There is also another reason for the characters to gain a patron. Each slave is bound by a leather collar that prevents their simply leaving the Slave Pits without incurring horrid pain, followed by death. Perhaps their patron can help them remove the collars?

There are opportunities to find loot in Thralls of the Sun—they lie beneath the Slave Pits in the lost Crypt of Ubara-Atutum. The dungeon of the adventure consists of four levels, divided into two sets of levels, each set being of a different character. The Slave Pits are roughly hewn, leading to caverns and tunnels below, but the Crypt of Ubara-Atutum is older than the Slave Pits, a tomb network cut in an older style and with greater precision. Getting from the first two levels down to the second two will take no little effort, primarily social in nature backed up with a number of puzzles. This perfectly exemplifies Blood & Bronze, which unlike other Retroclones is not quite so focused on combat.

The divide between the two sections means that Thralls of the Sun could be run without each other, though perhaps a little effort would required by the Referee to separate them easily. Further, the player characters may not be guilty of any crime, so why are they in the Slave Pits? Is it to plunder the Crypt of Ubara-Atutum? Or are they after something else? 

Physically, Thralls of the Sun is very nicely presented. This is to be expected, since the core rules for Blood & Bronze were solidly presented and punctuated with some superbly evocative artwork. Its map was also nicely done. Now the writing is as good in Thralls of the Sun, though another edit would not have gone amiss, but the artwork is not as good. This is not to say that the artwork is bad—it is not. It is not just as good as that in the Blood & Bronze core rules. Glynn Seal’s cartography though, is fabulous. Again, it is evocative and flavoursome, detailed and clear, and just really good.

Thralls of the Sun is an impressive first adventure for Blood & Bronze. It should provide multiple sessions of play, but above all it provides a solid reason and motivation to play. 

Friday, 15 April 2016

Super Zombies

The question of how you would survive a zombie apocalypse has been asked so often in the last few years that it has become a cliché. Yet how would you survive a zombie apocalypse if you were not an ordinary member of the public, but a superhero? This is a question asked in Rotted Capes, a superhero/zombie fusion RPG published by Paradigm Concepts that brings the Four Colour superhero genre into violent and bloody collision with the rise of the dead. Four years after ‘Z-Day’, the inhabitants of Paradigm City must survive not only the corpse cortege that roams the city, but former superheroes and super-villains that have fallen to the flesh feasting freaks and risen as Super Zombies, each equally as hungry for the flesh of the living, but without their former morality and still possessing the superpowers they had in life. Worse, the surviving superheroes—that is, the player characters—are not ‘A-Listers’, the equivalent of members of The Avengers, the Justice League of America, the X-Men, or Stormwatch, but ‘B-Listers’, sidekicks or minor superheroes or villains, forced through circumstances to go above and beyond to survive in a ‘Grave New World’. 

Published via Kickstarter, Rotted Capes is a Four Colour superhero RPG brought to flesh wrenching halt by the zombie apocalypse—essentially Mystery Men meets The Walking Dead. It is not a new idea. 2005 ‘s Marvel Zombies explored an alternative universe where the familiar heroes of the Marvel universe were zombies, whilst Peter Cline’s Ex-Heroes series of novels presented a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles where super heroes worked to protect the survivors. ‘B-Listers’ being expected to step up when the ‘A-Listers’ are dead—or in the case of Rotted Capes, undead—is not exactly new to gaming either. It is essentially the same set-up as Necessary Evil, the superhero Plot Point campaign from Pinnacle Entertainment Group for use with Savage Worlds, though of course, that sees the minor villains and ex-sidekicks forced to face the aftermath of an alien invasion after the world’s major heroes and villains have been killed defending the Earth against the invaders.

Creating a super-powered character in Rotted Capes begins with selecting a power source and an archetype. The former—Super-Human, Skill Hero, and Tech Hero grants an Attribute bonus and some Advantages and Disadvantages, whilst the latter— Blaster, Brawler, Controller, Infiltrator, Heavy, and Transporter—each grants another Attribute bonus and reduced purchase cost during character creation for certain powers. As a ‘B-lister’, each player character is built on 150 points. In comparison, ‘A-Listers’ are built on 600 points. These points are spent on Attributes, Skills, and Powers. 

A character has eight Attributes; four physical—Might, Prowess, Quickness, and Vigour, and four mental—Charisma, Insight, Logic, and Resolve. Each Attribute has a score value, which has an associated Base Die type and a Passive Modifier. The Die type is rolled when a character takes an action, the Passive Modifier for passive rolls, defenses, and initiative, amongst other aspects of the rules. The average human has a score of four in each Attribute, with ‘B-listers’ having a score as high as nine. Score values scale up, to thirty-six and more, measuring at the same time, how much a character lift, push,  and how fast he can run. Thus the average human can lift 100 lbs., push 150 lbs., and run at 10 MPH, whereas a character with a score of eight can lift 500 lbs., push 10000 lbs., and run at 18 MPH. A character with a score of thirty-six in any Attribute is akin to a god…

Skills reflect the modern setting of Rotted Capes, but whilst fairly broad, most allow characters to focus on certain aspects of a skill, whilst others require a character to specialise. Powers though, do not reflect a true Four Colour setting, as neither magic nor spells are given. For the most part, Rotted Capes keeps its powers relatively straightforward, but it makes a couple of interesting tweaks to gaming superpowers. The first is the capacity to use one power to emulate another, for example, using the Teleport power to move items as per the Move Object power. This grants a fair degree of flexibility when it comes to character design. The second tweak is the concept of ‘Burnout’. Every hero has a Burnout Threshold and many of the game’s powers have a Burnout value. When a character uses powers with Burnout, these values accrue and when they exceed the hero’s Burnout Threshold, there is a chance that all of the hero’s powers with Burnout values will burn out and be unusable for several actions. This is not a rule that particularly fits the Four Colour genre, but rather it makes Rotted Capes much grittier and pushes its tone towards the zombie apocalypse genre.

Our sample character is small, would be villain, Elliot P. Anderson. Before Z-Day, he had been a recent graduate of CalTech who got hired straight out of college by a new start-up company in Paradigm City. Which was going well until it got busted as a cover for the criminal mastermind Professor Gojkovik and Elliot first got zapped when some equipment exploded in the fight and then arrested. Before he could be arraigned, Elliot just vanished out of his cell and found himself back in his apartment. Unable to get work, he was forced to use his newly found powers for burglary. He never got caught, but then Z-Day happened and now he is on his own, looking for somewhere to hide.

Inside Man. 
Origin: Super-Human (Power Source), Transporter (Archetype) 
Personality Flaw: Greedy

Might 4/d8/2
Prowess 5/d8/3
Quickness  5/d8/3
Vigour  5/d8/3
Charisma  5/d8/3
Insight  5/d8/3
Logic  5/d8/3
Resolve  11/d12/4

Pace: 3
Initiative: 3
Burnout (Discipline): 19
Avoidance: 18
Fortitude: 17
Discipline: 19
Stamina: 54
Wounds: 4
AR vs. Ballistic: 2 Melee: 2 Energy: 2

Common Attacks:
Glock 19 9mm semi-auto handgun (d8)
Machete (d8)

Personality Flaw: Greedy, Survivor’s Guilt

Powers: Enhanced Attribute [Resolve] 5/20, Teleport 8/24

Advantages: Burglar, Jury Rig

Disadvantages: Physical Flaw [Glasses] (+2)

Skills [Bonus/Passive]:
Drive: 1/16, Empathy: 2/17, Engineering [Computers]: 3/18, Engineering [Programming] 2/17, Firearms: 2/17, Influence: 1/16, Larceny: 2/17, Local Knowledge: 1/16, Melee: 2/17, Perception: 2/17, Scavenge: 3/18, Stealth: 2/17, Technology [Basic]: 1/16, Technology [Programming] 2/17, Urban Survival:1/16

Glock 17 9mm semi-auto handgun, machete, Reinforced Armour, Technician’s Kit

Character creation in Rotted Capes suffers from the same problem that character creation in all Super Hero RPGs suffers from—complexity. This is not as complex as say Hero Games’ Champions or Steve Jackson Games Supers for use with GURPS. By the standards of most modern RPGs, it is relatively complex and involving, requiring a player to balance his somewhat limited budget of points.

So far Rotted Capes has focussed on its superhero half, but this changes with its coverage of equipment. In a superhero setting, this usually one of the least important sections except where one of the player characters is a super scientist or gadgeteer, but here as in any other zombie apocalypse game it is a matter of survival, the player characters having to regularly venture forth to scavenge for supplies. In a zombie infested post-apocalypse, even one where there are superheroes, this is no different. After all, this what Rotted Capes is about. Even so, Rotted Capes nicely streamlines the process of equipment selection, starting characters simply being the initial weapons of their choice, plus a Starter Pack of their choice—’Medic’, Survivalist’, ‘Technician’, and so on. Anything else must be purchased using ‘Acquisition Points’ gained from each character’s Scavenge and Urban survival skills.

To undertake an action, a character rolls his Action Dice—two ten-sided dice—plus Attribute Die and adds to this total any modifiers from his Advantages, Tricks, and the Ranks from his Powers and Skills. The final result is compared to a Target Number, ten for Easy, fifteen for Routine, twenty for Challenging, and so on. Rolls of a maximum on the Attribute Dice—or the Plot Die—mean that the dice explode and can be rolled again, their results also added. Dice types can also be increased or decreased by Die Bumps or Die Penalties.

For example, Inside Man has got inside a big store in order to look for supplies. The Editor-in-Chief—as the Game Master is known in Rotted Capesrules that this establishment has already been picked over several times, so sets the Target Number as Daunting or twenty-five. So Inside Man picks up the Action Dice and rolls them along with his Insight Attribute Die before adding three for his Scavenge skill. So the roll is 2d10+d8+3. Undaunted, the Inside Man rolls 9, 8, and 7 before adding the +3. The final result is 27. More than enough to pass and Inside Man finds some much needed supplies.

Should a character need them, he also has Plot Dice. Equal to the value of his lowest Attribute, they are primarily used to add to action rolls. They can also be used to ignore current Wound penalties or avoid death; the effects of character Flaws when triggered by the Editor-in-Chief; to remove Conditions like Push, Stagger, Stunned, and Crippled; and to create an advantageous complication or even break the rules. Each character starts with a certain number and earns more by accepting the Editor-in-Chief triggering his Flaws or even suggesting Complications within the game.

Rotted Capes employs the same mechanic for combat, but adds two interesting tweaks over other RPGs. The first is the twelve Tick ‘Clock’ used to determine when everyone acts. Each action or combat maneuvre has a cost measured in ‘Ticks’, which when used advances the Clock. Combat in Rotted Capes also does not use Rounds in which the initiative is reset for each new Round—as in almost any other RPG—but rather Actions also roll over. In effect combat in Rotted Capes is handled on a rolling basis and there is potential for more back and forth Four Colour action.

The other tweak particular to Rotted Capes reflects the grittier setting of  zombie apocalypse. Characters have a fair amount of Stamina and can therefore withstand a fair amount of punishment, but only have a limited number of Wounds. These are lost for suffering Massive Damage or a Critical Success from an Action Roll, but worse, if a zombie bites a character and inflicts a Wound, there is a chance that he will be infected by the Z-virus. The only known cure to the Z-virus is amputation, but it is possible to prevent the infection from spreading by burning the wound area. This inflicts another Wound and also partly explains why heroes and villains from the Glory Days continue to wear their costumes four years on from Z-Day—the costumes hide the burn scars! The other reason why heroes and villains continue to wear their costumes is because in doing so, they better stand as symbols of hope for the ‘Enclaves’ that they protect.

In addition to defending against rival Enclaves and their superpowered protectors, the player characters must also defend against zombies. Not only ordinary zombies, but also zombies with blades instead of hands, zombies who can phase through walls, and zombies that can sneak! This in addition to the bystanders who possess the powerful Ultra-Gene, but never transformed into heroes or villains in the Glory Days, but infected by the Z-virus since Z-Day, have transformed into inhuman Abominations! All zombies are tough because they do not suffer Stamina damage—only Wounds, which only serves to make Super ‘Z’s or Super Zombies even more of a threat. These are former heroes or villains who have been infected by the Z-virus and transformed into a Super Zombie. Typically they retain their superpowers and their intelligence, but not their morality. Occasionally they will form wolf packs, but in general they are extremely territorial lone wolves who enjoy hunting the living. This is one reason why most Enclaves try and remain hidden. 

The default setting for Rotted Capes is Paradigm City, which has the feel of a generic Midwest American city—like a slimmed down version of Chicago. Its description is rather broad, but still with enough details for the Editor-in-Chief to use each of its neighbourhoods and particular locations in a game. Of course Paradigm City is not just any city. Before Z-Day it was home to an array of superheroes and super-villains. Many of these did not survive Z-Day or its aftermath, including the heroes Titan, many members of the Denton Dynasty, and Lady Liberty, and the villains Night Wolf, Blackstalk, Doctor Wraith, and Golden Ram. Others did survive, but the fate of many, such as The Sentinel and Professor ‘the Eternal Man’ Gojkovik, remains unknown. What this means is that there still secrets of Paradigm City waiting to be revealed, both mundane and outre, that is if the surviving characters can get past the cadaver cavalcade between them and those secrets.

Where Rotted Capes really shines is in its discussion of its tropes—both sets of them. One set is of course from the Four Colour subgenres of superheroes, the other the zombie apocalypse horror subgenre, and Rotted Capes not only discusses both, it also looks the tropes created when the two sub-genres merge to form Rotted Capes. The Z-Days of Rotted Capes  present a world where there are no longer good guys—‘White Hats’ and bad guys—‘Black Hats’, but ‘Grey Hats’ instead—including the heroes; there are no longer any Super-Villains, but zombies and ‘Super-Zombies’; where victories are small; where the player characters are forced to deal with the politics and the day-to-day personal relationships of their enclave, and so on. This discussion is accompanied by an equally as good discussion of Rotted Capes scenarios and campaigns, of possible campaign styles, and of the possible types of Enclaves and how they affect play.  Rounding out the book is a collection of write-ups, with full stats, for sample heroes and ‘Super-Zombies’. 

Where Rotted Capes does come up short is that its superhero half is not a wholly Four Colour superhero setting. It is a very humanocentric, pseudo-scientific setting, so there is no magic or rules for magic—despite the colour text suggesting that there should be—and there are no rules for playing aliens, robots, and the like. Again, this despite their being written into some of the background about the Glory Days before Z-Day.

Unfortunately, Rotted Capes does need another edit, though this is not to say that the writing lacks clarity. The fact that it was funded via Kickstarter gives rise to the oddity of the artwork depicting lots of bearded and bespectacled Americans. This does not feel as anachronistic as it does in Deadlands Noir becuase it is a modern set game—and after all, in the here and now of 2015, beards are in—but it does not feel very Four Colour. Nevertheless, Rotted Capes is a nice looking book and the artwork is mix of the bloody and the brutal with the Four Colour.

Rotted Capes could be a superhero RPG and it would be okay. It could be a zombie apocalypse RPG and it would be just about okay. What is surprising is that the combination of both in one RPG actually works, even though mechanically, Rotted Capes does bring the complexity of the superhero RPG to the zombie apocalypse RPG. What the combination does is bring a grittier, more desperate tone to the superhero genre without going down the path of comics’ Iron Age, whilst presenting both a threat that will challenge the player characters—the zombies and the ‘Super-Zombies’ and a reason for them to work together—to survive and to help their enclave survive. Although it may look like a novelty, Rotted Capes brings a freshness to both genres with challenges that will not have been seen in either before.

Darkness can be Dull

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide plus the adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the fifteenth adventure is The Darkness in Shadowturrets.

The Darkness in Shadowturrets is written by Ed Greenwood, best known as the creator and designer of the Forgotten Realms, the default setting for Dungeons & Dragons since 1987. It is the fifth adventure written for characters who have entered the Master Path, that is of Seventh Level or higher, and comes as an eight page, 37.52 MB PDF. It is designed as a standalone adventure or as the start to an ongoing campaign and is described by the author as “an extremely challenging scenario, even for the highest-level groups of master characters.” He also advises that, “Such groups would do well to pad their numbers with henchmen, mercenaries, and other servants if they want to survive.”

The setting for The Darkness in Shadowturrets is the Grand Duchy of the West, where in recent weeks great clattering, moving mounds of animated bones have emerged from the Duchy’s forests to wreak havoc on the countryside. Many villages have been abandoned under their onslaught and so far the Duke’s best men have been defeated in their attempts to thwart the undead threat. Evidence suggests that the animated bones—known as ‘prowling bones’—emanate from Shadowturrets, an abandoned keep deep in the forests that has been occupied by The New Followers of the Seer, a cult that dabbles in necromancy and forbidden magic. The Grand Duke offers a rich reward—a land grant of Shadowturrets and the nearby villages—to anyone who can rid his lands of the threat.

This then sounds like an interesting set-up, particularly because it is one of the few scenarios published for Shadow of the Demon Lord that suggests that the player characters might become something more than just itinerant adventurers. Indeed, if the player characters are successful then a whole series of adventures could be spun out of the epilogue to The Darkness of Shadowturrets as they try to retain control of their newly awarded land grant. That though is beyond the scope of this adventure, but perhaps Schwalb Entertainment might publish further adventures based around such events because it would be nice to see something interesting come of what is unfortunately an uninteresting and ultimately disappointing adventure.

It turns out that the castle of Shadowturrets has been fused into glass-like mass that resembles a tree trunk. Inside, just a few of the rooms are accessible and just seven of them are described. Each of the seven rooms simply boils down to a combat encounter and whilst the monsters might be weird or terrifying it just means that the adventure strikes just the one note throughout. This is compounded by the fact that there is no map of Shadowturrets so it feels as if the encounters in The Darkness of Shadowturrets are linear in nature, one after the other. Sadly, The Darkness of Shadowturrets leaves the Game Master with a lot of work to do if he wants to run anything more than a combat scenario. There are interesting elements to The Darkness of Shadowturrets, but the author all but ignores them in favour of one combat encounter after another.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Blood & Bronze & Charm

Of all the Scandinavian countries, Sweden is the most prolific in terms of the number of RPGs it has produced and had published in English. Most notable of these are Mutant Chronicles, recently published as a Third Edition by Modiphius Entertainment and Kult, itself about to receive a Third Edition following a successful Kickstarter campaign. The newest and latest Swedish RPG to be released in English is a much smaller affair, though no less interesting for that. What sets Blood & Bronze: A Fantasy Game of High Adventure and Role-Playing apart is its genre and setting—the latter more so than the former.  RPG apart is its genre and setting—the latter more so than the former. For Blood & Bronze that genre is in the ‘Peplum’ or Swords & Sandals genre, best typified by the popular films of early Italian cinema. Although the Swords & Sandal genre has been visited several times by various RPGs, such as Green Ronin Publishing’s Egyptian Adventures: Hamunaptra, The Trojan War, and Testament, and to some extent, Mongoose Publishing’s Conan The Roleplaying Game and Jaws of the Six Serpents from Silverbranch Games, though the latter two are more Swords & Sorcery than Swords & Sandals. The setting for Blood & Bronze is Ancient Mesopotamia, further to the East in the Cradle of Civilisation. 

Published by Cyclopean Games, Blood & Bronze is a Class and Level RPG set in the Bronze Age in a land between two rivers marked by vast cities and uncharted wilderness. Recovering from a severe, cataclysmic flood barely one hundred years before, this Mystical Mesopotamia is rich in faith, in foodstuffs, and in knowledge, but scarce in resources. Opportunities for adventure are thus rife—the long trade routes need to be protected and there are secrets that remain hidden from before the flood. It is a Humanocentric setting—there are no non-Human races given—in which the players take the roles of Mercenaries, Rogues, Mystics, Desert Farers, Courtesans, and Seers as they adventure across the land, have strange experiences, gain loot, and pay tribute to gain favour and standing. This is an RPG that has the look and feel of the Old School Renaissance, but in some ways has moved on from those roots.

Characters in Blood & Bronze are defined by six Abilities—Guile, Lore, Senses, Craft, Vigor, and Might. Each Ability has a Score and a Rating. The Score ranges between three and eighteen, but that for beginning characters is only rolled on two six-sided dice. The Score is also used in play to make Saving Throws against on a roll of a twenty-sided die. Its primary use is to derive a Rating—roughly a third of the associated Score—which indicates the number of six-sided dice to roll in skill checks and attack rolls. Each Class also offers a number of specific skills and specialisations. So a Mercenary has the Hardened and the Tackle Skills, but can select Specialisations such as Weapon Training, Skilled Negotiator, Field Medic, Cleave, and so on. The Rogue is a Scoundrel who can have Thievery, Mimic, Reptilian Reflexes, and Sly. The Mystic takes doses of Lotus Powder to cast spells like Dancing Shadows, Illusion, and Unbearable Presence, but the burden of doing so wearies the caster, reducing his Encumbrance limits. The Desert Farer is a tough traveller, able to become a desert Mirage, can be a Pathfinder, and may have an ear for languages with Tongues. The Courtesan is owed Favours, but can also have Allure, be a Dream Speaker, or use Theatrics to avoid harm. The Seer is a sorcerer who can mix bone salt and blood to cast sorceries like Spirit Ward, Far Sight, and Witch Flame, but there is a danger that if he carries too much, the bone salt will burn away or perhaps enable the spirits to possess the Seer’s body. 

Of the Classes, the Seer and the Mystic feel the most restricted, focusing as they do on their magics. The others all feel more flexible in terms of how they can develop over time. For example, one Mercenary might focus on mastering one type of weapon and wearing armour whereas another might become a commander who can give out orders with his Stratagems and as a Skilled Negotiator get better rates of pay. Many of these Classes would also work in other Swords & Sorcery settings.

To create a character, a player rolls two six-sided dice for each Ability, (optionally) rolls a Background—the character’s previous occupation or that of his family, selects a Class and any Skills as it allows. Suggested names and appearances are given for each Class.

Zilpund the Hyena
Guise: Graceful & Calculating Eyes

Rank 1 Rogue

Guile 11/+3
Lore 5/+1
Senses 11/+3
Craft 8/+2
Vigor 11/+3
Might 8/+2

Endurance: 8

Background: Musician 

Skills: Preternatural Fortune, Vocational Proficiency, 

Weapons: Short bow: dmg 1d6; missile: reach 2 + 12 arrows (wt 2); a small club: dmg 1d6; an obsidian awl: damage 1d4 (backstab +d8).
Leather cap: armor 2, wt 2.

Equipment: undersized garments, a wicker beggar’s bowl, a length of rope made from sinews, a stolen copper bracelet, cedar wood harts, basic trade tools (as
per background), a vagrant’s purse.

Blood & Bronze uses two sets of mechanics. The first is for Skill Tests. In this a character rolls a number of six-sided dice equal to the appropriate Ability. Rolls of five and six are counted as successes. There are two Basic Skills associated with each of the six Abilities, for example, Manipulate and Disguise/Conceal for Guile, Make and Treat Wounds for Craft, and Expert Knowledge and Advise for Lore. 

Each Success rolled grants an extra result. For example, for each success rolled for the Advise skill lets a character grant another person—a player character or an NPC—a reroll of the dice as long as that other person heeds the character’s advice. In some cases, the outcome of these rolls can be altered. For example, Advise allows rerolls whilst Hurl allows a character to use each additional success to modify the first. It is important to note that all characters whatever their Class can use Basic Skills, this in addition to their own Class Skills. All twelve of the basic skills are listed on the character sheet as well as the effects of successes for each.

The second mechanic is the Saving Throw, which is made against the Score of the appropriate Ability. Now although the Score for an Ability can go over twelve, this is relatively rare and it does mean that the characters are relatively fragile. The real issue with the Saving Throw rules in Blood & Bronze is that it is not immediately clear which Ability is used for each type of Saving Throw. The rulebook does list these, but they are not obvious in the rulebook.

Combat in Blood & Bronze uses the skill mechanic. Melee attacks use the Use Force skill with extra successes allowing more damage dice to be rolled or other effects to take place, whereas successes with the Defend/Guard skill force rerolls of those damage dice or allows a character to place himself in the way of an incoming attack intended for another. The Hurl and Shoot skills are used for ranged attacks, but these can be evaded by rolls of the Senses Ability. Armour can negate damage, which calls for a Saving Throw against the armour’s Armour Score—Stiffened Leather’s score is six and Full Bronze’s score is ten, for example. Unless a twenty is rolled on the Saving Throw, Armour always negates damage and what the Saving throw is for is whether or not the armour is destroyed in the process. In comparison, shields reduce the damage rolled on the dice.

The damage of all of the dice is added together and suffered by the target. Worse, any maximum rolls on the dice allow the dice to be rolled again and added to the total. Damage is deducted from a character’s Encumbrance, which reduces his capacity to carry his gear and the likelihood that he will suffer fatigue—and fatigue reduces his Ability Scores (and thus his ability to make Saving Throws). A character is Incapacitated at an Encumbrance of zero and at an Encumbrance of -3, the character is Injured. At this point, a character must suffer a consequence—scarred, maimed, or dead—but over the course of his career, a character can only take each consequence once. Which means that combat in Blood & Bronze can thus be fairly deadly. It is actually advised to keep the combat deadlier for NPCs lest prolonged fights result in regular player character death. Now this likely simply applies to the equivalent of ‘mooks’, with henchmen and bosses being treated more like player characters.

In the long term though, characters in Blood & Bronze do not earn Experience Points; rather they buy them… Actually what a character does is go on adventures and finds loot; and with that loot, he pays tribute to gain a Rank. A character’s Rank is a measure of his standing in his class, his culture, and his community, and every man of good pays tribute to the gods. In Blood & Bronze, this Ninlil, the Queen of No Court, the patron deity of adventurers and caravan-folk, of shipwrecks, graverobbers, and runaways. Make sufficient tribute and a character can gain a Rank. Similarly, a character can enter into a Covenant with a god, a monster, a ruler, or an organisation, and in paying tribute gain Covenant Ranks. These are separate to Class Rank, but both must be accorded tribute, lest the character suffers the wrath of his master or mistress and possible effective loss of a Rank.

Now what might be the benefits of Covenant Rank is not discussed in Blood & Bone. Which is a shame as they are a good idea as is that of paying in tribute to gain Ranks. It is succinct and elegant means of getting around the old Dungeons & Dragons idea of gaining Experience Points for gaining treasure by literally making it the point. Plus it gets rid of having to track Experience Points and it feels in keeping with the setting. Just some six Levels are provided for in these core rules.

For the Referee there is a couple of pages of good advice on running the game and creating NPCs as well as the detailed outlines of Reaver Fort and two wilderness locations that he can develop and run. None of the locations are exactly adventures that can be run direct from the page and each will need some development. The other advice is solid and useful, though how NPCs are written and handled in the RPG is not clear and this is perhaps the biggest fault in Blood & Bronze.

Physically, Blood & Bronze is cleanly presented. It needs an edit or two in places, but in general the writing is clear. It does need an index though as there is lot of odd terms and rules to have to find. Where it shines in terms of its presentation is its art and cartography. The latter, by Sam Perkins-Harbin, is of Mystical Mesopotamia and really nicely done. The former though, is much, much better—superb even. All of the illustrations in Blood & Bronze are line art pieces by Rich Longmore and consist of two-page spreads between chapters that impart much of the setting’s exotic, almost Cecil B. DeMille-like sense of grandeur.

As much charm and sense of place that Blood & Bronze, the RPG is not without its problems. The first issue is a lack of explanation of what each Class is and does—despite there being room for a simple summary in each case. The second is  more problematic—the lack of examples. There are no examples of character generation; of the game’s mechanics—the skills or saving throws or the combat system; or of an example of play. This lack impedes the learning of the game and it fails to showcase how the designers intend the RPG to be played. The third issue is a lack of monsters and non-human threats. Now Blood & Bronze provides a way around this that should allow the Referee to draw from the very many bestiaries available, but herein lies the fourth issue—the guidelines for this do feel underwritten and there are no suggestions as to what monsters might suit the setting of Mystical Mesopotamia.

Blood & Bronze: A Fantasy Game of High Adventure and Role-Playing is not perfect. It is underdeveloped in places and leaves the Referee needing more in others—the lack of examples and of monsters, in particular. More background would also have been nice too. None of these issues are insurmountable, although an introductory adventure would have been a decent addition to the core rules. To say that Blood & Bronze could do with a second edition to fix its issues feels unfair, because there is lot to like about the RPG—the effort to make the game more than just a Retroclone, the interesting Classes, the use of a single mechanic for skills and actions throughout, and of course, the exoticism of the setting that is explored just enough to leave you wanting more detail, but ultimately realised in the terrific illustrations. Instead, what Blood & Bronze really wants is its own ‘White Box’.

The roots of Blood & Bronze may lie in Dungeons & Dragons and the Old School Renaissance—and it should be made clear that those roots do show, especially in the Classes—but its use of a single skills mechanic and its shift away from the Tolkienesque Medievalism of its forebears, make it more of a post-Old School Renaissance RPG. Above all, Blood & Bronze: A Fantasy Game of High Adventure and Role-Playing is an enticing treatment of alternate and exotic heroic age.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Goes Smooth as Fluxx

For almost two decades, Fluxx has been a mainstay of the gaming hobby. Published by Looney Labs, ‘The Card Game with Ever-Changing Rules’ has proven to be a pocket-sized and pocket-friendly game that is easy to bring to the table and play between longer and deeper games. The ‘1999 Mensa Select Winner’ is a card game in which the cards themselves determine the current rules of the game and by playing cards, the players alter various aspects of the game—how many cards to draw, how many cards to play, how many cards to hold, and even how to win. Essentially, only at the beginning of play is the state of the game set; at all other times, the state of the game is in ‘Fluxx’.

In order to win, a player needs to match the Goal card in play by having the two matching Keeper cards in front of him. For example, the ‘Time is Money’ Goal card requires a player to have the ‘Time’ and ‘Money’ Keeper cards in front of him. This can be on his turn or on another player’s turn, but match the Goal and he wins. Of course the Goal card and the Keepers each player has can change from one turn to the next.

At the start of the game, there is one simple, Basic Rule card—‘Draw 1, Play 1’. After that, everything can change from one turn to the next or even be reset to the basic rule. For example, a turn or two later, the Rule cards might be ‘Draw 2’, ‘Play All But 1’, and ‘Double Agenda’. What this means is that on his turn a player must draw two cards, play all of the cards in his hand until he only has one left, and that there can be two Goal cards in play rather than just the one. On another turn, the Rule cards might be ‘Draw 4’ and ‘Hand Limit 2’, meaning that a player must draw four cards, can still only play one card (because no Rule card has supplanted the ‘Play 1’ of the Basic Rule card), and then reduce the number of cards he can hold in his hand to just two.

Besides Rule, Goal, and Keeper cards, Fluxx includes several other card types. Action cards lets a player do something special. For example, ‘Trash Something’ lets a player take a Creeper or Keeper card in front of any player and put it in the discard pile, whilst ‘Draw 2 and Use ‘Em’ lets a player put his current hand aside, draw two new cards and play them before picking his hand back up. Creeper cards are like Keeper cards, but must be played once drawn and worse, prevent the player from winning—except under certain circumstances.

From Family Fluxx and Monty Python Fluxx to Zombie Fluxx and Batman Fluxx, Looney Labs have adapted to base game to numerous themes and licences, of which the latest is Firefly Fluxx. Based on the 2002 television series, in Firefly Fluxx the players try to match themed Keepers—characters or objects from the series—with matching Goals. So the ‘Curse Your Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal!’ Goal needs to be matched with the ‘Wash’ and ‘Toy Dinosaurs’ Keepers, whereas the ‘Big Damn Heroes’ Goal can be matched with any two of the ‘Mal Reynolds’, ‘Jayne Cobb’, and ‘Zoe Washburne’ Keeper cards. Several of the Keepers enable extra, specific actions. So ‘Zoe Washburne’ Keeper allows a player to steal the ‘Wash’ Keeper from another player and the ‘Wash’ Keeper allows a player to steal the ‘Serenity’ Keeper from another player. Stopping these Keepers from being used to win the game are the Creepers ‘Reavers’ and ‘Hands of Blue’. Thematic Action cards include ‘You Are Bound By The Law!’ and ‘I’ll Be In My Bunk’, the first being played to prevent a player from taking actions on his next turn, the latter to let a player leave the game and the room for a turn!

Firefly Fluxx also uses ‘Surprise’ cards. These have two effects, one when played during a player’s turn, one out of a player’s turn as an interrupting or blocking move. For example, out of turn, ‘You Can’t Take This Guy From me’ can be used to stop another player taking one of your character Keepers (and steal his hand of cards into the bargain), but during his turn, it can be used to replicate the ability of any Keeper in play.

Physically Firefly Fluxx has been given a suitably period styling. The cards are all clear, but the rules do include an FAQ. The artwork is reasonable, but perhaps a bit cartoon-like to present really good likenesses of the series’ characters.

Design and play-wise, Firefly Fluxx is a good match of theme and mechanics. In particular it fits the Firefly adage that ‘things don’t go smooth’ and since this is Fluxx, that is the last thing that they do. Of course, Firefly Fluxx is not a deep recreation of the television series, but for a quick and dirty treatment, it certainly is shiny.

Friday, 8 April 2016

A Winter's Woe

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide and an adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the thirteenth adventure is Heart of Winter.

Heart of Winter  is the third adventure written for characters who have entered the Master Path, that is of Seventh Level or higher. It is written by Chris Sims, the author of various supplements for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, such as DD1 Barrow of the Forgotten King and Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide, and comes as an eight page, 22.08 MB PDF. Physically, Heart of Winter is decently presented and includes not only the adventure itself, but descriptions of a pair of new artifacts.

It begins simply enough, in fashion that makes it easy to drop into any location or even another scenario. As the Demon Lord continues to near our reality and rend at the walls that separate his prison from our world, the walls between all realities weaken, and as the scenario opens, a tear was made the previous night, enabling screaming blasts of cold to emanate and plunge the lands of the Empire into the grip of a false winter. Perhaps the player characters might be driven to investigate this rift themselves, to protect a village or sacred site, to look for missing persons or heroes who have already gone to investigate, to locate important information or items, or to stop foul cultists taking advantage of the chaos, but whatever the reason, they will make their way to the rift and venture through ‘Winter’s Door’.

On the other side of the rift is a set of ancient ruins, located high up on a mountain—a mountain clearly many miles away from the other side of the rift. The ruins are icebound and amount to a fairly linear, twelve-location dungeon. It makes good use of its cold and icy location in its choice of monsters and both of its artifacts are well designed and interesting, one holy, one unholy. Yet as written, Heart of Winter never quite lifts itself being a simple dungeon bash, feeling much like a Dungeons & Dragons side encounter rather than an adventure for Shadow of the Demon Lord. This does not mean that a playing group will not have fun with it, but this scenario never quite succeeds in being more than average and it does not feel as if it offers enough of a challenge or playing experience to warrant the player characters gaining a whole new level based purely on completing it.

As good as it is to see so much support for Shadow of the Demon Lord, an RPG only just released, Heart of Winter is simply an average adventure. There are better adventures for the game and there are better adventures for characters of Master Level.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Whom the Gods Doth Bore

The End of the World is the line of survival horror RPGs published by Fantasy Flight Games. Licensed and adapted from quartet of titles originally published in Spanish by Edge Entertainment as El Fin del Mundo, each of the four titles explores four different types of apocalypse. The first, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse, deals with the rise of the dead; the second, Wrath of the Gods, with the return of deities intent on mankind’s destruction; the third, Alien Invasion, with the arrival of little green men; and the fourth, Revolt of the Machines, with robots that strikes back. At the heart of each title in the line is a simple question… “Could you survive the apocalypse?” For the key feature of the line is that players create not ‘fantasy’ modern characters through which they experience the end of the world, but create versions of themselves and see how they might survive.

So, as the title suggests, The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods is all about the return of the gods and is thus about how you—that is, the ordinary gamer sat reading this review—would survive. Further, it asks this again and again, presenting five ‘scenarios’ that take the player characters through the return of the gods and beyond. The inference is that this is done right from where you are sitting—round the gaming table with your friends—and into the neighbourhood where you live (and game). The question is, can this be done again and again with the players starting anew to face yet another miffed Mythos turning up and claiming what its dangerous deities believe to be rightly theirs? Further, does The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods bring anything new to the apocalyptic-post-apocalyptic genre?

To create a character—or rather to create a version of himself—a player assigns ten points across six attributes, each rated between one and five and paired into three Aspects. Each aspect consists of an offensive and a defensive attribute. So the Physical aspects are Dexterity and Vitality, the Mental aspects are Logic and Willpower, and the Social aspects are Charisma and Empathy. Once this is done, the process gets slightly complicated in that every other player gets to take a secret vote on each of a player’s pairings. A positive vote for an Aspect allows a player to raise one of the Aspect’s attributes by one whilst a negative vote forces him to lower an attribute by one. An equal number of positive and negative votes results in no changes being made.

The player then assigns a Feature to each Aspect. A Feature can be positive or negative, for example ‘Crack Shot’, ‘Deaf’, ‘Athlete’, or ‘Arachnophobe’. Only a few Features are listed in the rules, so the players may be on their own if they want fuller inspiration. A character can gain extra Features during the voting process for Aspects—if the group voted to improve an Aspect, then the player must accept a negative Feature and improve the Aspect or reject the group’s vote to improve the Aspect. Conversely, if the group voted to reduce an Aspect, then the player must either a positive Feature and reduce the Aspect or reject the group’s vote to reduce the Aspect. (Similarly, the only way in which a player character can improve is by the rest of the group voting for such changes).

Next, a player gets to write down his equipment he already has with him, that is, whatever he has on his person and perhaps in his bag—which in the case of most gamers is going to be dice, gaming books, and pens, plus a mobile telephone (and whatever might be to hand, depending on his location). Lastly, a player records any Traumas, the equivalent of wounds—physical, mental, or social—that he may be suffering from at the start of the game. This might be a broken arm, diabetes, depression, or acute shyness, but unless the Trauma is obvious, a player is under no obligation to reveal any.

So the sample character is essentially me (and no, there was nobody around to vote on this when I wrote it up) and that really is what I have on me at the moment. I can also count myself lucky that I really do not have any Traumas.

A sample Player Character
Physical Aspects
Dexterity 2
Vitality 3
Mental Aspects
Logic 3
Willpower 3
Social Aspects
Charisma 2
Empathy 3

Physical: Shortsighted
Mental: Decently educated
Social: Smartarse

Backpack containing pens, business cards, copies of Monster Manual for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, The Undercroft #1, and Vacant Ritual Assembly #1; warm clothing (great coat, woolen hat, gloves, and scarf); wallet (travel passes, cash card, £30 in notes and coins) and keys

To undertake any action a player rolls a handful of six-sided dice in two colours—white for positive dice and black for negative dice (of course, the two colours of dice can be any colour, but black and white is nice and simple). Positive dice come from a player’s attributes as well as any relevant Features and benefits from the situation, equipment, assistance from NPCs and other characters, whereas negative dice come from the difficulty of the task, from negative Features and Traumas, and from hindrances from the situation and equipment. Once all of the dice have been rolled, the dice are compared with positive and negative dice of the same value cancel each other out. Any remaining positive dice equal to, or less than, the attribute selected for the test count as successes. Typically, only one success is needed, but the GM is free to require more and they are used in opposed tests and combat. Conversely, the number of negative dice leftover counts as Stress and Stress is where The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods gets slightly more interesting.

Each Aspect of a character—physical, mental, or social—has an associated Stress Track consisting of nine boxes arranged in a three-by-three grid. Damage comes from performing difficult tasks and experiencing traumatic events with damage suffered is marked off the appropriate Stress Track. If all nine boxes on a Stress Track are filled in, then the player suffers a serious trauma or even death. For the Physical Stress Track, this is probably death; for the Mental Stress, track this is irreversible insanity; and for the Social Stress track, this is catatonia. At just nine boxes in a Stress Track, your representation of as a player character feels weak, but as the player suffers Stress, he also builds up a resistance to it. This reduces the amount of Stress he suffers, so effectively the more Stress he suffers, the more he grows inured to it—so for example, the first time that a player loses an ally to a zombie attack, he suffers Stress, but happen enough times and he will be numbed to it.

For example, I and an NPC have gone scavenging in a chemist’s shop for first aid supplies, but whilst I have been successful in my mission, I have attracted the attention of bandits. Having raced to the back of the shop, we find the exit locked—and the door is heavy duty! The GM tells me that Dexterity is the involved attribute, so the target is 2. This gives me just two positive dice to roll, but fortunately I gain another for my ally and another for the crowbar I have learned to carry. Unfortunately, the GM hands me three negative dice for the quality of the door. I roll 1, 2, 3, and 6 on the positive dice and 1, 3, and 5 on the negative dice. The rolls of 1 and 3 cancel each other out, leaving 2 and 6 positive, and  5 negative. The end result is one success and one negative die—enough to get the door open, but in the process, suffer a point of Stress.

Combat is a little more complex than this. Here the number of successes count and are added as Stress to the target. Weapons add to the number of successes rolled, for example a pistol adds +3, whilst Resistance will reduce them. Stress can be converted into Trauma upon reflection, but the more severe the Trauma, the longer it takes to heal. So a point of Physical Trauma might be a twisted ankle, which takes a day and some simple first to recover from; two points of Mental Trauma could be a dread of the dead, which takes a week and counselling to overcome; and three points of Social Trauma a case of paranoia, which takes over a month to recover from. So the interesting thing here is that a player must maintain a balance between keeping Stress on his Stress Track because it will give him a certain resistance taking further Stress and having to remove it because it will ultimately kill him, despite the fact that removing it converts it into Trauma—and that hinders a player.

The rules are fairly simple, but they are not the ‘elegant narrative rules system’ that the back cover blurb promises. The problem is the difference between the effect of positive dice and the effect of negative dice. In the case of the latter, negative dice rolls are interpreted in narrative terms as Trauma and thus have an effect, but positive dice only generate successes and have no narrative effect. At its most basic in The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods, only the first success counts—what happens to the excess successes, if any? Arguably in an ‘elegant narrative rules system’ these excess successes would have an effect. Now extra successes do have a mechanical effect in more complex situations—combat and opposed rolls—but still no narrative effect. Now the guidelines for running tests do discuss determining the results of a roll, but this is only to interpret the result and not apply any other benefit which a narrative rules system might allow for. This gives the rules an imbalance that an actual ‘elegant narrative rules system’ would ideally lack and weighs an RPG that is already biased against the players further against them. Of course if this is a design feature, then sadly, the RPG does not say so.

In terms of settings, The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods offers not one, but five, as per the previous The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse. They are scenarios in the proper sense, each ‘an imagined or projected sequence of events, including in particular several detailed plans or possibilities.’ Each is divided into two sections, the Apocalypse and the Post-Apocalypse. Specifically the Apocalypse details the opening events of the apocalypse—how and when the gods return, what the players experience and how everyone else is coping with it, the nature of the mythos in question and how they can be killed—or not, mostly ‘not’, a timeline of events from the start and into the future, a set of locations and possible encounters, and a set sample stats for the members of the undead and various NPCs. The Post-Apocalypse section details what the world is like after the apocalypse and again gives a set of locations and possible encounters and sample stats for NPCs. Each of these scenarios is twenty or so pages in length and in gaming terms is more of an outline for a mini-campaign rather than an actual scenario.

The first of the five scenarios is ‘Gaea’s Revenge’ in which nature strikes back and takes the planet from modern civilisation. Giant forests regrow and destroy buildings and structures, animals attack humanity, extreme weather and earthquakes destroy towns and cities, and so forth. In the post-apocalypse, humanity has been driven out of the ruined towns and forced to take up an agrarian lifestyle whilst scavenging a dwindling supply of portable resources. The problem is that there is nothing here for the player characters to do except survive and… and… and nothing else. ‘Gaea’s Revenge’ gets the quintet of scenarios in The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods off to a disappointingly dull start. In ‘Gaea’s Revenge’, the Earth goddess’ wrath is a four-page idea that because of the format of scenarios in The End of the World series has been expanded into sixteen.

Where The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods picks up in terms of its ideas, is with the second scenario, ‘The Return of Quetzalcoatl’. As the Earth is once again beset by earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, floods, and hurricanes, an unforeseen meteor strikes the planet and then around the world five stepped pyramid temples appear. Feathered warriors step forth from them, not only fighting the police and army to a standstill, but sacrificing those captured. In the wake of the sacrifices a giant feathered serpent rises from the meteor and attacks city and army alike… As this continues, some answer a strange call to climb atop a temple and never be seen again. Then once serpent’s representative persuades the world’s leaders to a truce, the creature disappears into a temple itself. In the years after, a prophet appears preaching a Neo-Mayanist faith and seeks to unite the world.

There is no denying that ‘The Return of Quetzalcoatl’ is a more interesting setting than the previous ‘Gaea’s Revenge’, but it does feel like a very long set-up time to get to the point where the player characters have any agency or do anything other than run around trying to avoid the natural disasters. It feels far more like the set up and pay off for a good novel rather than an RPG scenario.

Better though is ‘Ragnarok’—entirely as foretold. The Sun and Moon disappear, global panic, and then everyone on Earth has a premonition of their death—their Wyrd. As a dragon and a giant wolf rampage across the planet, trolls, frost giants, and fire giants emerge to tear down cities and the dead rise to drag the living down to Hel, the gods return to Earth to fight for the fate of the world—and more. Gamers are probably as in as good a place to participate in Ragnarök given that have some understanding of it and if any one of them is a LARPer or does reenactment, then maybe they have bigger advantage, because knowing how to handle a sword and shield will more prove effective against the creatures of Norse legend than guns. Even if not, ‘Ragnarok’ presents plenty of opportunities for the characters to participate in the fate of the Nine Worlds and beyond. They even get to fulfill their Wyrd and go out in a blaze of glory!

‘Revelation’ sees the player characters live out the end of days  as the seven Seals are opened, the Four Horse of the Apocalypse ride across the planet, blood and fire rain from the sky, plagues of locusts torment the survivors, and hell-knights stalk the living. As things look bleak, The Returned fall from the sky, each inspiring great faith, but as they begin providing leadership and perhaps even hope, a great leader appears to preach against the events of the apocalypse and to offer a sense of order in the chaos. The question is, can he be trusted and does he really have the world’s interests at heart?

‘Revelation’ is a Biblical interpretation of the apocalypse for The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods. It harks back to a type of RPG setting that the industry has not seen the likes of since the rash of millenarianism at the turn of the century. Again it suffers from a certain lack of player agency, bar the player characters running around trying to avoid or escape the disasters that beset the planet. The book even goes so far as to state this, so again it takes a while before they can get involved and that again really only occurs in the post-apocalypse not the apocalypse itself.

Rounding out the quintet of scenarios is ‘That is not Dead…’, which for scholars of H.P. Lovecraft is enough to tell the reader that this is an apocalypse in which Great Cthulhu rises. Although much hinted at, the time when the stars come right and the End Times arrive, has barely been explored in RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror—Ripples from Carcosa and the End Time monograph for Call of Cthulhu and the recently released Cthulhu Apocalypse for Trail of Cthulhu. The scenario even goes so far as to point that anyone familiar with Lovecraft’s writings will see the similarities in the events of this apocalypse and his fiction—which of course is no longer fiction. So terrible dreams are suffered around the world, there are great storms and earthquakes in the Pacific, an indescribable monstrosity strides from sea into California, and then batrachian things emerge from lakes and oceans to abduct men and women alike. In the wake of the fear and mass hysteria, cultists dedicated to these ‘things’ betray mankind, the things colonise the surface of the planet, and even greater creatures emerge from the sea to subjugate the last of humanity.

Again, this scenario points out that there is nothing that the player characters can hope to accomplish, particularly in the apocalypse. In the post-apocalypse it is another matter, but then the planet is faced with the reality of the Cthulhu mythos, so there is little that the characters will be able to do anyway. This is less of an issue than in the other scenarios for that reason. Whilst there might be room to explore the final days of humanity, we are  doomed from day one of ‘That is not Dead…’, whereas this is not the case in the other scenarios in The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods. Too often the players have to wait around and do nothing except panic and then panic again before they get the chance to act; and too often pages and pages of each scenario are devoted to explaining what happens whilst the player characters get to do nothing.

Just as with The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse, physically, The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods is well presented. The layout is tidy and the artwork decent, and even the index is reasonable—and yet…

As novel as the idea of playing yourself facing the rise of the walking dead was, the truth is that The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse was a contender for worst RPG of 2015. It brought nothing new to the zombie genre, it was too American, it failed to address the issue of the game’s replay value—that is, the replay value of the game and oddness of playing yourself in one scenario and once it ends, starting all over again in another which means resetting yourself to your base stats. Plus it used mechanics that did not live up to their billing and in doing so favoured the game and the Referee rather than the players. Lastly, it set up a flaw that is going to run through the line as a whole—its format. Having fifty pages devoted in each entry in the line to the rules followed by ninety pages of settings and scenarios means that if you have one book in the line and then purchase another, then you are paying the same price for just two thirds of new content—and remember, neither The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse nor The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods are inexpensive books.

Unfortunately The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods suffers from nearly all of the same problems. After all, it uses the same mechanics and the same format. It is also too American in its focus and it does not address the issue of replaying yourself from one scenario in the book to next (and having to reset yourself each time). Now despite those issues—and these are issues are very unlikely to be addressed in the forthcoming The End of the World: Alien Invasion or The End of the World: Revolt of the Machines—there is one saving grace to The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods, and that is its scenarios. Even then, said scenarios are very, very far from being perfect.

What primarily makes the scenarios in The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods imperfect is simple—‘Gaea’s Revenge’. There is nothing wrong with idea behind this scenario, but at twenty or so pages, it is uninspiring and dull. Worse, if you have another entry in The End of the World series and then purchase The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods, then ‘Gaea’s Revenge’ does nothing more than increase the wasted page count to half of the book—and remember,  The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods is not an inexpensive book. The secondary issue is that the apocalypses of too many of the other scenarios leave the player characters with too little to do. Of the quintet in The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods, only ‘Ragnarok’ really gives a great deal for the player characters to do from the off and its chance for them to be heroic is refreshing from the other scenarios.

The good news is that The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is still the contender for worst RPG of 2015—The End of the World: The Wrath of the Gods does not dethrone it, although it is a pretender. The End of the World: The Wrath of the Gods feels as underdeveloped and underwhelming in an overdone presentation, but at least it presents a better range of ideas in its apocalyptic scenarios. Of these ‘Ragnarok’ is the standout scenario because it gets the player characters involved, something that the other scenarios are just too slow to do and that leaves The End of the World: The Wrath of the Gods GM with too much work to do than it should.