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

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Professional Traveller

Although it was not the first Science Fiction roleplaying game—that distinction would fall to Flying Buffalo Incorporated’s Starfaring, published in 1976—Traveller was the first popular Science Fiction roleplaying game. Published in 1977 by Games Designers’ Workshop, it began life as a set of generic rules which could be used to run a science fiction game. These rules would go on to exhibit a number of key features influenced by the Imperial Science Fiction of Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton, H. Beam Piper, EC Tubb et al of the 1950s. These features are a focus on human characters, though with capacity for alien species; Faster-Than-Light travel via ‘jump space’ of limited number of light years per jump, but with the same duration per jump; no Faster-Than-Light communication—the speed of communication is limited by the time taken by each jump; no Prime Directive—planets conduct internal wars, whilst capitalism is engaged in on every level; a stratified, almost feudal society, with the nobility—from baron, marquis, and viscount to count, duke, and archduke all the way up to emperor—governing continents, planets, star systems, sub-sectors, and sectors; materialism in that rewards are physical and social rather than mechanical, so no Experience Points, Leveling Up, and so on; an array of options in terms of career, ship, and subsector design to create diversity; and mortality—characters are normal and skilled rather than superpowered, and can die even with the huge advancements made in medical science, even during character generation. For Traveller, these would find expression in The Third Imperium, perhaps the greatest of the Science Fiction settings for any roleplaying game, which projects a future history across millennia and thousands upon thousands of systems and worlds, involving true heroes and villains, hundreds of sophonts—both major and minor, and deep, interesting secrets. 

In the four decades since its original publication as ‘Little Black Books’, Traveller has appeared in numerous versions from various publishers, including Traveller, MegaTraveller, and Traveller: The New Era from Game Designers’ Workshop, T4: Marc Miller's Traveller from Imperium Games, GURPS Traveller and GURPS Traveller: Interstellar Wars from Steve Jackson Games, Traveller D20 from QuikLink Interactive, and Traveller Hero from ComStar Games. In its fortieth year, Traveller is published by two companies. Traveller 5 is published by Far Future Enterprises, whilst Traveller, now in its second edition, is published by Mongoose Publishing.

First published in 2008, what is so amazing about the second edition of Mongoose Publishing’s Traveller: Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future is that the core rulebook is in full colour throughout. This includes the artwork, some of which is good, but quite a lot of which is awful. What is also amazing is that the layout is clean and tidy. What is really amazing is that the editing is of a professional standard. In other words, the Traveller: Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future core rule-book is a product that looks and feels professionally done—barring some of the art-work—which is not something that could always be said of previous books from Mongoose Publishing, especially those released for Traveller.

It is important to note what the Traveller core rulebook is not and that is, a complete toolkit for creating and running a science fiction campaign. If a Game Master wants a complete toolkit for his Traveller game, then Traveller 5 is perhaps a better choice. What the Traveller core rulebook does include is rules for character generation and combat, operating vehicles, spaceships, and starships in and out of combat, trade, psionics, and world creation, but it does not include rules for creating or designing spaceships and starships. This is covered in the High Guard supplement. Instead, details are given—including deck plans—of some nineteen starships and smallcraft plus variants common to the ‘Official Traveller Universe’ of The Third Imperium. What this means is that long time devotees of Traveller and The Third Imperium could switch to these rules and continue playing without any problem. It also means that the Game Master could create a Traveller-like setting and run a game in that setting, but the technical aspects of his setting would still be those of Traveller rather than those of his design.

The starting point in a great many roleplaying games are neophyte characters, barely teenagers, armed, armoured, and possessing just enough skill-at-arms, magical knowhow, divine grace, and slippery stealthiness to get into trouble. Traveller changed that by introducing a form of lifepath to create a character and his back-ground. Characters in Traveller instead spent years in a career, learning skills, gaining promotions, and so on, before leaving the service with a bonus, perhaps a pension, and either possession of, or shares in, a starship. Notoriously, there was always the possibility of a character dying during the character generation process. This still forms the basis of character generation in Traveller, but with several differences, one of which is that characters no longer die during the creation process, though they can be wounded.

Characters are defined by six characteristics—Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intellect, Education, and Social Standing—each rolled on two six-sided dice and expressed as line of numbers and letters called UPP or Universal Personality Profile. After acquiring some base skills at level zero, a character can attempt higher education—either university or a military academy before entering a service. Five of the original six that appeared in the Little Black Books—Army, Marines, Merchant, Navy, and Scout—are joined by a further seven—Agent, Citizen, Drifter, Entertainer, Nobility, Rogue, and Scholar—representing the sixth of the original careers, Other. Two further careers, Psionicist and Prisoner, are also available, depending upon the results of certain dice rolls during the character creation process. Each career provides three branches or variations. So for example, the Navy career lists the Line/Crew, Engineer/Gunner, and Flight assignments, the Entertainer career lists Artist, Journalist, and Performer assignments, and the Drifter career lists the Barbarian, Wanderer, and Scavenger assignments, and so on. A character can change assignments within a career, this is easy within a service like the Navy or Scouts, but is treated like changing careers for some like the Merchants and Citizens.

From one term to the next, events are also rolled for the character. Tables for both events and mishaps are given for each career and there is also a table of life events. These add colour and detail to a character’s background and can grant benefits as well as penalties. Players can also link their characters by sharing an event and are encouraged to do so by being granted an extra skill each. At the end of the process, a character receives benefits ranging from money, characteristic increases, weapons, and equipment to contacts, ship’s shares and mortgages, and actual ships, all depending upon the career. The last two steps in the character generation process are rolling for aging and taking a skills package. Aging is inevitable and will eventually result in the reduction of a character’s characteristics, and though it can be forestalled with the use of anagathics, this is hazardous to the health, expensive, and potentially illegal. The skills package is selected as a group, each package representing the type of game that a group wants to play. So there is a general Traveller skill package, a Mercenary skills package, a Trader skills package, and so on. What it means is that between them, the characters in a campaign will have the right skills.

The default species for characters in Traveller is Human, but it also offers two other options from the Third Imperium setting. These are the leonine Aslan and wolf-like Vargr. These are the most accessible of the alien species from the Third Imperium setting and their inclusion comes with just about information to play them. Their inclusion does not add any further complication to the process of character generation, but character generation is relatively complex anyway and takes a bit of time and a lot of dice rolls, so it is essentially all random. It is also made longer by needing to be a social process in order to form the social connections. The sample character failed to get into university and so instead decided to see the galaxy by signing on with a free trader. Originally learning to handle and trade cargo, she become a pilot and navigator before war broke out between two minor states outside the border of the Third Imperium and the Third Imperium stepped in to enforce a peace. Driven to trade beyond the war zone, the free trader’s fortunes took a turn for the worse and she and her crew were forced to turn to piracy. 

Anged Jonett, Age 46
Merchant/Free Trader 3/Experienced Trader
Rogue/Pirate 3
Admin 0, Astrogation 1, Broker 1, Deception 0, Drive 1, Electronics (Computers) 0, Engineer (J-Drive) 2, Flyer (Grav) 0, Gambler 1, Gunner (Turret) 0, Jack-of-all-Trades 1, Melee (Unarmed) 1, Persuade 1, Pilot (Spacecraft) 2, Pilot (Spacecraft) 0, Steward 0, Streetwise 1, Vacc Suit 2
Benefits: Free Trader (owned), Cr110,000, Body Pistol
Events: Travel, War, Forced Out of Business, Enemy, Criminal Activity, Gambling Ring

Overall, characters in Mongoose Traveller look pretty much like those of previous editions. Notably, there is a slimming down of both the number of skills in the game and the skill points a character can gain during the creation process. The former is achieved by subsuming a lot of the skills in previous editions of the roleplaying game into specialities, so that Computers is part of the Electronics skill along with Comms, Sensor Ops, and Remote Ops, and Battledress is part of the Vacc Suit skill. The latter is achieved by it being possible to have a level of zero in a skill and the upper value of any skill rarely needing to be above two or three. This is offset by bonuses granted by a character’s attributes.

The core mechanic in Traveller remains effectively the same as in the previous editions. To have a character attempt an action, a player rolls two six-sided dice, aiming to roll a set Task Difficulty or higher. An average Task Difficulty is eight or higher, but can drop as low as two and rise as high as fourteen. Modifiers for a roll can come from a character’s attributes and skills. In addition, a character can gain a boon or a bane die to add to the roll, depending upon the circumstances. So, a boon might come from a good set of tools, whilst a bane might come from an inferior set of tools. A boon or a bane die adds a third die to the two rolled for an action, but only two are counted. In the case of a boon die, the highest two are counted, whereas a bane die means that the lowest two are counted.
So, for example, Anged Jonett’s ‘merchant’ ship is ambushed by Vargr pirates and it suffers a hit that causes the bridge to suffer decompression. She and her fellow bridge crew need to suit up as fast as possible. Anged is not in her spacesuit, but since she captains a ship that is involved in situations where combat might ensue, she ensures that vacc suits are kept at duty stations. The Game Master sets the Task Difficulty at Average or eight. Anged’s player will roll two dice and two for Anged’s Vacc Suit skill and two for her Dexterity. Anged’s player suggests that since Anged has run drills for this, she should have a boon die. The Game Master agrees.
Anged’s player rolls 3, 5, and 6. The boon die means that she keeps the best two, which are the 5 and the 6. With the addition of the modifiers, Anged’s player rolls a total of fifteen and succeeds.
Sometimes, it is not enough to succeed, but necessary to know how well. The difference between the Task Difficulty and the number rolled gives an Effect value which measures how well a character has succeeded or failed. Using this Effect Value, it is possible to actually fail the roll with a marginal failure which can be turned into a success with consequences.  An Effect value of six or more below the Task Difficulty results in an ‘Exceptional Failure’, whilst an Effect value of six or more above the Task Difficulty results in an ‘Exceptional Success’. Continuing the previous example, the Effect Value would be seven, the equivalent of an Exceptional Success, which the Game Master rules that Anged manages to suit up without any difficulty and also manages to help her crew suit up without any difficulties so that can respond to the attack unhindered!

Notably the Effect value is added to damage inflicted in combat, the rules for which are explained in just a few pages, much like the rules for skills. In fact, the rules for personal combat are simple and straightforward with a concise set of modifiers so as not to hamper play. This being Traveller, it should be noted that any damage suffered is deducted from a nebulous set of Hit Points, but directly from a character’s physical attributes, first Endurance, then Dexterity, then Strength. Players should be aware though, that weapons, especially guns—slugthrowers, energy weapons, and heavy weapons—can be very deadly. An autopistol will inflict up to fifteen points of damage, a laser rifle up to thirty points, and a Plasma Gun, Man Portable—which is particularly deadly—as much as sixty points! Put that in the context of an average human having attribute values of seven each and it is easy to see how deadly weapons are in Traveller. Armour is therefore vital equipment.

Equipment in Traveller is presented like a catalogue as much as it is a set of mechanics. So not just an indication of average standards of living per Social Standing, but also armour, communication gear, computers and software, medical gear, sensors, survival gear, and of course, weapons. All of the items are illustrated to give some idea what they look like in The Third Imperium. In comparison to previous editions of Traveller, the equipment here is not so obviously dated. In particular, the computer technology of Traveller was always stuck in the period of the 1960s and 1970s, but here it has been updated to reflect what contemporary computers are like. To that can be added rules and devices for personal augmentation or augments. So characters can improve themselves with Cognitive, Dexterity, Endurance, or Strength Augmentations, improve their senses with Enhanced Vision, armour themselves with Subdermal Armour, and gain access to improved or other skills with Wafer Jacks. This reflects a change in the Imperial Science Fiction of Traveller to the Cyberpunk fiction of the 1980s, but their inclusion will not necessarily overpower a Traveller game as they are expensive to purchase. So, in a Traveller-style game, player characters with extensive cybernetic augmentation are likely to be rare.

Combat in Traveller scales up to encompass vehicle combat and space combat. Much like the rules for skills and personal combat, these opt for a certain concision. So in just eight pages, rules are presented for movement, combat, maneuvering, vehicle weapons and equipment, damage, repair, and collisions. These are supported with seven sample vehicles, from ground cars to G-Carriers and Grav Bikes. What is clear from the rules is that are they are designed for small engagements, rarely more than one-on-one, rather than mass battles. The aim here is personal, or rather, character involvement and roleplaying rather than simulation. This is more explicit in the explanations of spacecraft operations and spacecraft combat, where Traveller has a number of specific skills that needed to successfully operate a spaceship. In combat, though, a character will have a very specific role, depending on his skills. So a Captain will make rolls on Leadership and Tactics (Naval), an Engineer might prepare the Jump Drive or repair a system, a Sensor Operator will engage in electronic warfare or try and gain a sensor lock, a gunner will fire weapons or reload, a Pilot will evade or maneuver for advantage, a marine will conduct or repel boarding actions, and so on. 

Just as the chapter on vehicle combat is supported by a selection of sample vehicles, the chapters on spaceship operations and spaceship combat are supported by some nineteen starships and smallcraft plus variants common to the ‘Official Traveller Universe’ of The Third Imperium. These all come with full colour deck plans, though in the larger ships these are a little difficult to read. They range from the one-hundred-ton Scout/Courier and two-hundred-ton Far Trader—both staples of a Traveller campaign—up to the six-hundred-ton Subsidised Liner and the eight-hundred-ton Mercenary Cruiser. The selection enables the Game Master to run a variety of campaign types, a tramp freighter type campaign could be built around the Scout/Courier or Far Trader; a mercenary campaign around a Mercenary Cruiser; a Yacht or Safari Ship for a more leisurely style of campaign, and so on.

More setting rules cover encounters with animals and NPCs, some encounter tables, trade between star systems—which supports merchant campaigns in particular, and the creation of the setting itself and worlds. The latter focus on the creation of single worlds rather than actual systems and their stats can be expressed just like the UPP as a Universal World Profile. The process is quicker and simpler than the creation of player characters and the process includes some cultural differences to differentiate between other worlds. Our sample world is Clora 63, a small, low-g (0.25 G) water world with a diameter of 4,800 km, standard atmosphere which is home to roughly seven million inhabitants. It is an icy world with extensive ice caps and little standing water. A rich, non-industrial world, it is a retreat world governed from neighbouring Foastea which makes its money catering to all year-round winter sports.

Clora 63 B369667A Ni Ri

Although they are outlawed in the setting of the Third Imperium, Traveller includes the rules for psionic abilities. These are organised into five Talents—Awareness, Clairvoyance, Telekinesis, Telepathy, and Teleportation—under which there are activities a psion can use. So, Telepathy includes Life Detection, Mind Link, Telempathy, Read Surface Thoughts, and so on. Each Talent is treated like a skill and each activity a skill check, much in line with the Task Difficulty mechanics. The core modifiers to any roll will be a character’s modifier from his PSI stat and the level of the Talent it-self. Although Psionics can be powerful, what limits their use is the number of points of psionic power a character has to use and by their use being illegal in the default setting. Plus, gaining access to the Psion career requires certain Life Events to be rolled for during character generation, the same as the Prisoner career. Ultimately, whether or not psionics play a role in a campaign is up to the Game Master to decide, but if allowed, the Psion career is not one that can be freely chosen.

Our second example character is a corporate manager and leader whose long-term career was hampered by his poor social standing. Instead he took a sabbatical to join a secret psionic study institute he had been in contact with since his days at university. Unfortunately, the institute was unmasked and he was forced to go on the run before being captured and imprisoned for crimes against the Imperium.

Hary Grownes, Age 54
University Graduate (Honours)
Citizen/Corporate 4 (Senior Manager)
Psion/Adept 3 (Acolyte)
Crime/Fixer 1
Admin 3, Advocate 3, Carouse 1, Deception 1, Diplomat 2, Flyer (Grav) 1, Gambler 2, Gun Combat (Energy) 1, Jack-of-all-Trades 1, Melee (Unarmed) 2, Persuade 2, Science (Psionicology) 1, Vacc Suit 1

Psionic Strength 7
Talents: Telepathy 2, Awareness 2, Clairvoyance 1

Events: Psion Group, Befriended a Superior (Ally), Romantic Relationship (Ally), Business Expands, Political Upheaval, Psionic Strength, Specialist Training, Crime, Back Breaking Labour

TAS Membership, Ship Shares (5)

Rounding out the Traveller rulebook is a description of a complete subsector. This is the Sindal subsector in the Trojan Reach located between the Third Imperium and the Aslan Hierate. Just seventeen worlds are described in a mostly empty subsector of space, each with a patron who might hire a player character group. It contains a good mix of worlds and is decidedly rough and ready section of space where the player characters can act with impunity.

As pleasing as the relative simplicity and concision of the rules in Traveller are, they are lacking in two ways. One is the lack of reference or flow charts, both of which would have been helpful for running combat at all levels—personal, vehicular, or space—of the roleplaying game. There is one for character generation, but nothing else. The other is a lack of examples. There are examples in the book and they are useful, but there are no extended examples. So, no example of play, of combat, of vehicle combat, or spaceship combat. Which is such a shame and such a missed opportunity, as they would have helped bring the game come to life and the rules easier to understand through seeing them in action.

At the start of the review, I stated how much of a revelation the corebook rulebook for Traveller: Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future was and that remains true. As physically decent as the book is, what strikes you about this version of Traveller is the efficiency and concision with which the rules are presented and written. This in turn makes them accessible and easy to understand—especially for anyone already familiar with Traveller—though the lack of worked examples may hinder players new to the game and the setting. Above all, the Traveller Core Rulebook is a competent, accessible set of rules for playing in the Third Imperium and playing Imperial Science Fiction.

Weird Wizards

½ of #30 wizards VERSION ZIRO from Lost Pages is something of an oddity. Alright, so saying that about almost any book from Lost Pages is a bit of a given, but with ½ of #30 wizards VERSION ZIRO it is more so. A sixteen-page booklet without a cover, it presents some fifteen wizards—and often weird wizards at that. Yet there are also subtle wizards, charming wizards, gonzo wizards, menacing wizards, whimsical wizards, and more. Written for use with the retroclone of your choice, ½ of #30 wizards VERSION ZIRO is an Old School Renaissance supplement that will inject a mix of menace, whimsy, and wackiness into almost any Game Master’s fantasy campaign.

Each Wizard occupies a single page. Their base information includes Hit Dice, Armour Class, and Attack, each accompanied by a simple descriptor. One quarter of the page includes some background and some of the magical items and spells they wield, whilst the other suggests motivations, interactions, and possibly adventure ideas. So Spitz the Pointed is HD 1d4 (‘doesn’t do dice’), Armour Class 10 (‘paper and money’), and Atk 1d4×1d4 (‘compound interest’) and “Strokes Frog the familiar legless toad of wise inflation as matters of financial dark magic are discussed…” He is a wizard of Council of the Mathic Wizards—a position of weight, heft, and buffet lunches, accompanied by economically minded Frog the Legless Toad who attacks with Inflation, Deflation, and Depression. Spitz the Pointed knows the spell Create Imaginary Money and possesses the Scarf of Limitless Growth. He also promises , “You stroke my toad and I’ll stroke your back…” There is further detail beyond this of course, this sort of illustrates the not so serious tone of the supplement whose pages include such NPCs as Baron Baron, the hat trick, top hat wearing wizard and summoner of the Rabbits of Arrgh; Lord Bunny Ears, the gory burrowmaster; Aragosta Blumenkraft, the Herbalist Florimancer praised by the Cockle Queen and gloried by the Crab King; and the Squidmaster, with his ‘slippy slappy always happy’ tentacular attack and many bodily extensions, including a bio-prosthetic Heart of Darkness, bionic transplant Mouthbeak, and organic transplant Squirrely facial tentacles.

What really stands out about ½ of #30 wizards VERSION ZIRO is not so much the content as the artwork. Each wizard is delightfully illustrated in black and white, pen and ink—with the occasional splash of colour—and there is some surprising subtley to these illustrations. So Kromo Reza the Sword at first appears to be a big, hulking barbarian with a teeny tiny almost robot head who is wielding a huge hulking sword. Yet look closer and the barbarian seems not so much to be wielding the sword, but guarding it and that because the barbarian is Littlehead Metalknees, a thrall of Kromo Reza the Sword and the actual wizard! The glorious ruler, Soft Cloud, gently rests, smoking the Pipe of Djinn, on the Throne of the Little Three-Eyed Thralls, and yes, the illustration really does depict the throne being held up by Little Three-Eyed Thralls!

Physically, ½ of #30 wizards VERSION ZIRO is cleanly and tidely presented. The only real issue is the lack of cover, which means that the supplement is not really very sturdy.

Written and designed by Luka Rejec of wizardthieffighter.com, ½ of #30 wizards VERSION ZIRO is not really a supplement whose contents are going to make into most Gamer Master’s campaigns. Its NPC wizards are too weird, too bonkers, too mad to bring to the average fantasy game, but in a weirder, more gonzo setting, they can bring mystery and magic to a game. Even in the average fantasy setting, if used with care, they can be introduced to inject a sense of the weird and a sense of the other. Of course, its title suggests that ½ of #30 wizards VERSION ZIRO is only one half of series, so will there be The other ½ of #30 wizards VERSION ZIRO? Or perhaps, ½ of #30 fighters VERSION ZIRO? Or even, a ½ of #30 Myths & Magic VERSION ZIRO campaign setting? Lord Bunny Ears demands that you tell him or he will bring down a rabbit ruin upon you!

Well, what ½ of #30 wizards VERSION ZIRO really is, is a taster. It is a taster for a combined character generator and pre-generated NPC supplement designed to provide both interesting player characters quickly easily and a ready supply of interesting NPCs. The aim is not just to focus on wizards, but also fighters and thieves—hence wizardthieffighter.com. Whilst we wait for the full supplement from Lost Pages, ½ of #30 wizards VERSION ZIRO is an appetising taster.

Friday, 11 August 2017

The Eighth Doctor

With the publication of The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s celebration of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary for the Ennie-award winning Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game finds itself in a limbo between the last hurrah of Classic Who and the launch of ‘Nu Who’. The former was of course detailed in The Seventh Doctor Sourcebook and the arrival of the latter is covered in The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook. This limbo is a reflection of the history of the television series, cancelled in 1989 and relaunched in 2005, with a sixteen-year gap during which the only canonical Doctor Who story was a certain television movie. Released in 1996, Doctor Who: The Movie was a made for television movie that marked the regeneration of the Seventh Doctor into the Eighth Doctor, the reappearance of the Master, and laid the groundwork for what the BBC hoped to be a new series. Unfortunately, the film was a failure, being reviled by the fans and seen as being too American. It also condemned the Eighth Doctor to a single canonical appearance.

Except not. For whilst the Eighth Doctor would continue to have multiple adventures in audio via Big Finish, he would have one last canonical outing in The Night of the Doctor that would see him regenerate in the events that lead up to The Day of the Doctor, the actual fiftieth anniversary episode for Doctor Who. It is thus Doctor Who: The Movie and The Night of the Doctor that The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook bounces between in exploring the adventures of the Eighth Doctor. As with the other books in the series, the first few chapters explore who this incarnation of the Doctor is, who is companions are, what his TARDIS is like, and what his adventures are like with a view to designing them. Yet from the very first page, the authors are forced to deal with the paucity of information about the Eighth Doctor and each of these topics, and their answer in most cases, is to stretch the source material about as far as they can. So, for example, Doctor Grace Holloway and the gang member from Doctor Who: The Movie, Chang Lee, are treated as Companions, but in the classic sense neither are. What the authors do is suggest that they are because they have access to the TARDIS, but since neither travels in the TARDIS, are they really? Well, no… Now the Eighth Doctor is not exactly lacking in Companions, as the phrase taken from The Night of the Doctor and included in the sourcebook here, “Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin, Molly, friends, companions I’ve known, I salute you...” suggests. These are of course Companions that have travelled with the Eighth Doctor in the audio adventures published by Big Finish, but are not cannon, so cannot be included in The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook.

Similarly, the other suggested Companion, Cass, from The Night of the Doctor, is not a Companion, but the authors do at least suggest how she might be a Companion—and it is a whole lot more interesting than the explanations for Doctor Grace Holloway and Chang Lee as Companions, tying in as it does, to The Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords. What this showcases is how the authors and the publishers are actually more interested in The Night of the Doctor than they are in Doctor Who: The Movie. This can be seen throughout the sourcebook, starting with the cover, which although includes a photo of Eric Roberts as the Master from Doctor Who: The Movie, uses a photo from The Night of the Doctor to illustrate the Doctor. It can be seen in how the authors manage to squeeze a page-and-a-half of information out of the eight minutes of The Night of the Doctor versus the nine pages they get out of Doctor Who: The Movie—and even then, those nine pages feel stretched. Yet it still has to cover the movie and the authors definitely want to get through it in order to get to the interesting stuff, even if they are forced to explain why the Doctor might be half-human as claimed in Doctor Who: The Movie. The best said about the explanation is that it is what it is and move on. The idea was silly enough and whilst the explanation is reasonable enough given that silliness, it just reminds the reader of that silliness. 

The paucity of source material also means that the section on adventures for the Eighth Doctor is also rather stretched thin because as the authors make clear, there is not much to go on. What the sourcebook suggests is that the Eighth Doctor’s time is initially marked with an innocence exuberance for life, but that this innocence is lost as he witnesses the effects of the Time War, and ultimately, forced to pick a side. And that is about that, because there are no adventures to go on.

So what of the other four fifths of The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook? Well, one of the upsides of having so little material to draw upon is that the authors can make stuff up and what they make up is ‘Doom of the Daleks’, a twelve-part campaign which is a consequence of the Time War, involves the Doctor, and takes its structure from The Key to Time story arc for the Fourth Doctor. The time travelers, be they the Doctor and his Companions, other Time Lords and their Companions, associates of the Doctor—for which read members of UNIT, Torchwood, or the Paternoster Gang—or non-associates of the Doctor—for which read other characters the players have created, get a message or a visit and are given a great quest. The Doctor has been shot with a Dalek weapon that is erasing him from Time and to prevent this from happening, the weapon needs to be destroyed. Which requires using a Temporal Trace Locator to find traces of the Doctor up and down his timeline and once it has enough traces, quadrangulate the location of the weapon, and then destroy it. Essentially, a big McGuffin hunt and an excuse to emulate the styles of each of the first eleven Doctors’ adventures.

Of course, the adventures can be played in any order, because this is time travel, but are presented in order, one through eleven in the sourcebook. The first few adventures do fit the style of their relevant Doctors, but there is a bit of a mix and match of dangers between regenerations. So whilst ‘Down and Away Below’ is a classic historical adventure in the style of the First Doctor, involving pirates and the Caribbean, it actually involves a classic Third Doctor monster, the Sea Devils. Similarly, ‘The Space Trap’, a classic Second Doctor murder mystery aboard a space station, involves monsters from the Third Doctor’s and the Fourth Doctor’s eras, the Sontarans and the Rutans respectively, though of course, a Third Doctor adventure would not be so without the involvement of UNIT and the Master, which is exactly what ‘The Tendrils of Neox’ involves and a jolly romp it is too. ‘Nowhere’ takes its cue from ‘The Face of the Enemy’, a sort of sandbox affair festooned with Fourth Doctor iconography and has an oddly Dickensian feel rather than the obvious Gothic stylings that the authors might have opted for. For the Fifth Doctor, ‘The Coils of the Serpent’ is a direct sequel to two highly regarded episodes, ‘Kinda’ and ‘Snakedance’ and is none the worse for that, and at least it does provide an opportunity for one player to roleplay some scenery chewing evil. The odd one out in the first six is ‘Lunchtime of the Dead’, which though written for the Sixth Doctor and is a sequel of sorts to ‘The Twin Dilemma’, feels like it should have been written for the Fourth Doctor. This is because it is actually a parody of Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and since Adams’ tenure was under the Fourth Doctor… Anyway, it is so thick with puns and references to the actual Restaurant at the End of the Universe, that the Game Master should probably run it as such and just go with the consequences—bombast and all!

The scenarios take a notable down turn in quality for the second half and as written, they are just not quite as much fun. ‘The Matter of Silver’ for the Seventh Doctor plays on the Arthurian motifs as the player characters themselves in a castle in a pocket dimension besieged by demons, whilst ‘The Patchwork Man’ is really only a scenario for the Eighth Doctor because it is set in the same hospital as Doctor Who: The Movie. The adventure does least begin to bring thing back to the authors’ efforts to tie the adventures of the Eighth Doctor into the Time War and it at least it includes an appearance by the villains of the campaign—the Daleks! Their influence continues in ‘Marked’, a decidedly deadly, combat orientated game show set adventure for the Ninth Doctor. Being set in a deadly game show a la ‘Bad Wolf’ results in feeling like heavy-handed commentary on early twenty-first century reality television, though the ‘Diary Room’ does give the opportunity for the Game Master to set up some fun roleplaying. ‘Ice’ for the Tenth Doctor is modelled upon ‘Silence in the Library’ and ‘Forest of the Dead’ and although it has an environmentally interesting timing mechanism, is okay. The penultimate adventure, for the Eleventh Doctor, is ‘The Face in the Mirror’, a locked room affair in a country manor in a branching timeline with a healthy dose of ‘timey-wimey’ in the Edwardian era. It is quite a fun mystery, though the Game Master will need to work very hard so as not to reveal the identity of the true monster too early lest the player characters run around panicking! Lastly, there is ‘Neverwas’, the climax to ‘Doom of the Daleks’, which the Game Master will need to be careful for it to fizz rather than fizzle… Disappointingly, the very, very end is underwritten given all that effort that the Game Master has put in over the course of the preceding twelve episodes.

Physically, The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook is as well presented as the other books in the series. It is liberally illustrated and it needs an edit here and there, but what cartography there is, is plain and dull. One issue is the inappropriate use of illustrations, so that for an illustration of a pirate in ‘Down and Away Below’, a photo of Captain Henry Avery from ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ and ‘A Good Man Goes to War’, despite the fact that he does not appear in the adventure. This happens again and again throughout the book. The problem is that Cubicle Seven Entertainment cannot use anything other than photos from the series to illustrate the books, so as much as the photos are illustrative, they invariably do not illustrate what is in each adventure.

To be fair, The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook is not a good sourcebook for the Eighth Doctor. Then again, how could it be with so little to draw upon? The authors do try their very best and whilst not great, it is about as good as could be expected. In the meantime, it does give the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game something it does not have—a campaign! Now even though the campaign is not quite as good as it could be, but it is a more than reasonable solution to the question, “What shall we do with a sourcebook when we really, really having nothing to fill it with?” The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook is a curate’s egg, but then Doctor Who is not always perfect either, and if some of the adventures underwhelm, some of them can still entertain.

Free RPG Day 2017: Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires

Now in its tenth year, Free RPG Day offers up a variety of different titles for different games, typically introductory rule sets, also known as quickstarts, or scenarios. The scenarios are of course for existing games, but whilst the quickstarts may likewise also be for existing games, many are for forthcoming games, giving gamers a chance to experience a new game or setting before they released. RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure is one such release, as is Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires.

Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires is a one shot scenario and taster for Through the Breach, a roleplaying game set in the Victorian-era city of Malifaux and published by Wyrd Miniatures, LLC. Malifaux is a Gothic city of steam power, magic, monsters, Victorian horror, and the wild west which can be accessed from our Earth. In Through the Breach, the players take the roles of the Fated, those men and women whose destinies are tied to series of vague and cryptic clues, yet who can choose to embrace or reject their destinies. In Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires, the player characters are new recruits of the Ten Thunders, an Asian crime syndicate which operates in the lawless Little Kingdom slum as both oppressor and benefactor. Currently, they are students at the Sango Temple, training to serve the Ten Thunders. Five pre-generated player characters are given. They include a boisterous Japanese acrobat who makes himself the centre of attention; an American wastrel with the luck of the draw; a Vietnamese scrapper with anger issues; an imposing Japanese guard; and a Chinese dabbler in magic who is ashamed of her poisonous spells. 

Through the Breach uses cards instead of dice to resolve conflicts. These are divided into four suits—Crows (Spades), Masks (Diamonds), Rams (Hearts), and Tomes (Clubs)—and two types of decks. One is the Fate Deck, which is the communal deck, and is the same size as a standard deck of cards. The other is the Twist Deck. Each player has one of these, which consists of just thirteen cards. To undertake an action with a risk of failure, a character  engages in a Challenge Duel. The Fatemaster—as the Game Master is known in Through the Breach—sets a Target Number for the Challenge Duel, whilst the player flips one card from the Fate Deck and totals its value with his character’s relevant Aspect and Skill in order to beat the Target Number. 

The two Jokers in the Fate Deck indicate great success or great failure, the Red Joker the former, the Black Joker the latter. If drawn, the Black Joker must be played. Further, Fate Modifiers—positive and negative—indicate whether a Challenge Duel is is easier is harder to overcome. They cancel each other out, but any remaining modifiers increase the number of extra cards a player draws from the Fate Deck, up to a maximum of three. If the remaining Fate Modifiers are negative, the player must use the card with the lowest value, but if positive, the player is free to choose which card he uses.

A player will also have a hand of three or more cards drawn from his Twist Deck. A player can use a card in his hand drawn from his Twist Deck to enable his character to Cheat Fate by replacing the card flipped from the Fate Deck. Some characters possess Triggers, extra effects or actions that come into play when a Challenge Duel is resolved and a card of the Trigger’s Suit—Crows, Masks, Rams, or Tomes—is used to overcome the Challenge Duel. For example, in Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires, the pre-generated character, Mai Pham, has the Vengeful Crane Kick which has a Jump Kick Trigger. It triggers if Mai Pham succeeds in a martial attack and the Rams Suite is used in the attack and enables her to make a second Martial Arts attack on the same target.

Combat in Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires uses the same mechanics, but the number by which the attacker beats the defender determines the Damage Flip Modifier. This is the equivalent of Fate Modifiers, but specifically for damage. This determines the number of cards to be drawn from the Fate Deck and the value of the one selected by the player will determine if the character will inflict Weak, Moderate, or Severe damage. If a member of the Fated suffers damage enough to reduce his wounds to zero, then further damage suffered will have Critical effects.

The rules presented in Combat in Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires are not too complex, although the Fatemaster and players alike will need to make some adjustment if they are used to playing roleplaying games with dice rather than cards. They will also need to make careful reading of the pre-generated characters and their abilities to get the most effective use out of them.

The adventure in Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires is of course, ‘Unearthly Desires’. It is a short, three-act affair which begins with Sango Temple where the player character Fated are studying, coming under attack and their master being all but killed. This reveals Master Lo’s true purpose—keeping a demon bound in place. Whether or not they succeed in saving his life, Master Lo instructs the Fated to save the perpetrators and stop the demon from wreaking its havoc on the city.

Physically, Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires is nicely presented as a full colour, sturdy booklet. The illustrations are excellent, though the booklet will require a read to grasp how it played. Probably two, which means that the preparation time for the adventure is quite high given how long the adventure actually is. In addition, each player as well as the Fatemaster will need his own deck of cards. The players to create their individual Twist Decks and the Fatemaster the Fate Deck.

There is certainly a good two hour adventure to be had in Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires though it is one that focuses more on combat than on investigation or roleplaying. That said, it does a nice job of introducing the mechanics to Through the Breach and at least a little of the setting. The only real downside is the preparation time and the time needed to find and set up the number of required card decks. More challenging—at least mechanically—than most entries for Free RPG Day 2017, Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires is decent introduction to Through the Breach that definitely serves up the action.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Smoke & Mirrors

Designed to be used with the GORE™ Open Game Content Rules published by Goblinoid Games—best known for the Old School Renaissance Retroclone, Labyrinth LordThe Fenworthy Inheritance proved to be an interesting scenario that was almost, but not quite a Call of Cthulhu scenario. Set in the 1920s, The Fenworthy Inheritance is a one-shot scenario set in England’s West Country in which a walking holiday goes awry when the characters encounter death on the road, rural superstition, village politics, and revenge from down the years… Compatible with Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition—and with some effort with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition—the scenario came with pre-generated characters and some excellent artwork. Although hampered by some poor production values, The Fenworthy Inheritance was a worthy first horror scenario from MontiDots Ltd. Now it has a sequel—The Smoking Mirror.

The Smoking Mirror is not a one-shot and is very much designed as a sequel to The Fenworthy Inheritance. This does not mean that it cannot be run as a one-shot or as part of an ongoing campaign, but it requires experienced investigators and the need to remove or change any reference to the seven pre-generated investigators that are included and which are part of the series. Besides these seven pre-generated investigators, it comes with ten or so decently done handouts, a sheaf of maps, and some excellent illustrations. It also includes a quick guide to the GORE™ Open Game Content Rules, to which are added rules for reading occult tomes, as well as casting various spells. 

The scenario takes place in the last week of August, 1922. It takes the investigators away from the countryside of The Fenworthy Inheritance to the cultural high spots and low spots of the Big Smoke. Just as the British Museum has taken delivery of a consignment of artefacts from a newly discovered city in Honduras, one of its employees from the Department of the Americas goes missing. Tristam Soames is a specialist in hieroglyphics and his father, Lord Soames, is worried enough to hire the investigators rather than the police. Their investigative efforts will hopefully reveal a plot involving Doctor John Dee, Aztec cosmology, the Bright Young Things, and potentially, the wish that the Spanish Armada really had invaded England in 1588. Not only is the plot timed, being a race against the clock, there is even potential for the scenario to get all ‘time-wimey’ and the investigators to get a second go at solving the mystery and thwarting the threat should they fail the first time around.

The Smoking Mirror is quite a tight little scenario, both geographically and chronologically. The latter because it takes place over three days and the former because it mainly takes place in Bloomsbury and Soho, though there is the possibility of a day trip out to Oxford. The tight time frame also means that the Game Master needs to keep track of where each of the NPCs are at any one time. Thankfully, the tight nature of the scenario also means that there are only a few NPCs that the Game Master must keep track of, but doing so is important because it determines what they know and consequently, what their actions will be.

In terms of its plot, The Smoking Mirror is nothing that we have not seen before, but many elements of said plot benefit from a fresh pair of eyes. That said, it has the potential to overburden the investigators with books, many of which take days to fully understand and there may not be enough time to really benefit from their contents. Also, the climax—the summoning of a very bloody god—could have been better handled and more clearly presented and the scenario leaves what happens if the investigators succeed up to the Game Master to determine. These will not necessarily be much of an issue for the experienced Game Master, but anyone less experienced may have a problem presenting or developing solutions to these problems. 

Physically, The Smoking Mirror is a mixed bag. Both the layout and the floor plans are clean if perfunctory, whilst the artwork is excellent. The latter should be no surprise given that the author is also a published artist. Unfortunately, The Smoking Mirror is in need of two things being fixed to make it a decent scenario. One is the better handling of the climax and its aftermath. The second is its editing. The Smoking Mirror suffers from a case of too many homonyms and too many awkward phrasings. Now none of this is sufficient to hinder someone from running The Smoking Mirror, but in several places a Game Master will need to pause to check and see if that is what the author really meant to say. 

There is much to like about The Smoking Mirror. It has some lovely illustrations, it has a solid, playable plot, and it makes good use of the locations it details. Certainly, the scenario handles its visits to the British Museum in a far better manner than the previous efforts of Lovecraftian investigative horror—Madness in London Town and Five Go Mad in Egypt—and the limited selection of locations and their descriptions make them easy to bring into a game. That said, the scenario could have benefited from another editorial, if not a developmental, pass—perhaps two. Then perhaps, the scenario will be as professional a release as the author and artist wants it to be. The Smoking Mirror is not unplayable and it is not unenjoyable, it is just not as polished as the author intended it to be.


At the time of publication, MontiDots Ltd. did not have a website. It does however, have a presence on Facebook and the author can be contacted directly via email: info@montidots.co.uk. As of September, 2016, MontiDotsLtd. titles are available on RPGnow, including both The Fenworthy Inheritance and The Smoking Mirror.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Free RPG Day 2017: Starfinder: First Contact

Now in its tenth year, Saturday, June 17th is Free RPG Day and with it comes an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera. The scenarios are of course for existing games, but whilst the quickstarts may likewise also be for existing games, many are for forthcoming games, giving gamers a chance to experience a new game or setting before they are released. One such title is neither a scenario nor a quickstart, but a teaser, introducing elements of a forthcoming roleplaying game. That title is Starfinder: First Contact.

Since 2009, Paizo Publishing has been releasing and supporting material for its Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, a Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying game and in fact, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game remains one of the best supported games currently available, with innumerable supplements, scenarios, and campaigns. In previous years, Paizo Publishing has supported Free RPG Day with scenarios like We Be Goblins. For 2017, Paizo Publishing released Starfinder: First Contact. This is a teaser for Starfinder, Paizo Publishing’s Science Fantasy roleplaying game which takes the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game forward thousands and thousands of years and to the stars. To some extent, the genre of ‘Dungeons & Dragons in Space!’ has been explored before, most notably with TSR, Inc.’s Spelljammer in 1989 and then with the Dragonstar Starfarer's Handbook from Fantasy Flight Games in 2001.

As a first glance, Starfinder: First Contact does three things. First and second, it introduces us to what is different in the Starfinder Roleplaying Game in comparison to the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and it tells us what is new in the Starfinder Roleplaying Game. Third, it introduces us to eleven monsters and creatures that are home not just to Golarion—the campaign setting for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game—but the Golarion solar system. Much of what is different as presented in Starfinder: First Contact relates to how monsters and creatures are presented in Starfinder. So, taking its cue from Pathfinder Unchained, the monster stat block in the Starfinder Roleplaying Game is slimmed down, for example, only listing ability modifiers and not ability scores; only listing feats that let a monster do something, whilst subsuming feats that grant bonuses into the relevant statistic; and the unification of the various types of sense beyond the basics into blindsight and blindsense. The new comes in the form of Class Abilities like the Cloaking Field, a kinetically rechargeable device that grants a bonus to the Stealth skill, and Grenade Expert, being able to throw a grenade further and jury-rig a small grenade within a few minutes; Universal Monster rules such as Limited Telepathy and Unliving; and weapon abilities, like Arc, Burn, and Explode, representing how much deadlier weapons—especially guns and energy weapons—are in the Starfinder Roleplaying Game.

Perhaps though, the most interesting suggestion in Starfinder: First Contact and thus Starfinder Roleplaying Game is that the new roleplaying game is going to allow the players to roleplay a great many of the races as aliens. Now they are weaker versions of the standard interpretations of the races, but enable a player to take the role of a Space Goblin junker, a Ratfolk mechanic, spellhacking Lashunta technomancer, and so on. Eleven races are given in Starfinder: First Contact—Bloodbrother, Contemplative, Ellicoth, Haan, Ksarik, Necrovite, Orocoran, Sarcesian, Security Robot, Space Goblin, and Space Pirate. Ranging from 1/3 to 13 in terms of C/R, the Contemplative, Haan, Sarcesian, and Space Goblin are given Racial Traits to allow them to be played as Alien player characters.

Unfortunately, there is nothing of the background of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game to be found in the pages of Starfinder: First Contact. That said, a very little of the background can be gleaned from the monster and creature descriptions. For example, the importance of Absalom Station, infested as it is with Space Goblins who use it as a staging point from where they can hijack ships and travel to the stars and how security on the station is handled by Security Robots, whilst some gangs have hacked some Security Robots and used them to protect their own interests. Unfortunately, all a little too slight to give much of the flavour and the feel of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game.

Being a release from Paizo Publishing, it should be no surprise that Starfinder: First Contact is a slickly produced and well-presented booklet. In comparison to other releases for Free RPG Day 2017, Starfinder: First Contact is very technical in nature and has little to offer the casual gamer beyond perhaps being a little intriguing. For the devotee of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game there is much in the pages of Starfinder: First Contact to entice their interest, especially if they are looking to expand their genre from fantasy to science fantasy and to see the future of Golarion pushed thousands of years into the future.