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

Sunday, 19 November 2017

An Original RPG

First published in 1975, Empire of the Petal Throne was the second roleplaying game published by TSR, Inc. and the third fantasy roleplaying game to be published, yet it was the first in so many ways. Mechanically, it might have introduced the concept of critical hits, but it was the first roleplaying game to come with a setting, the first roleplaying game to come with its own languages, the first roleplaying game not to be based upon West Europe mythologies but rather Asia, Central America, and Egypt, and the first to come with a campaign concept. That setting is in the very far future on Tékumel, a metal poor planet which has been isolated in a pocket dimension for at least fifty thousand years. Societies on Tékumel are culturally sophisticated if very tradition-bound, but technology has regressed to medieval levels, although relics of the past, notably the metallic, gem-shaped ‘Eyes’, can be found and used, some emitting healing rays, others destructive or freezing beams. Knowledge of their manufacture has long been lost, but Magic is known, its Sorcerer practitioners drawing upon dimensions beyond for its energies or Priestly practitioners petitioning the gods directly, for on Tékumel, the gods are very real and any disbelief in them is viewed as an aberration. In the five human empires—Livyánu, Mu′ugalavyá, Salarvyá, Tsolyánu, and Yán Kór—there are ten gods and ten cohorts, divided equally between the Tlomitlányal, the Gods of Stability, and the Tlokiriqáluyal, the Gods of Change, their followers constantly jockeying for power and influence.

Tékumel is the creation of M.A.R. Barker, a professor of Urdu and South Asian Studies and as much as it is a fantasy world, Tékumel is an exercise in linguistics. The designer created numerous languages for the world, Tsolyáni, for example, being inspired by Urdu, Pushtu, and Mayan. It should be noted that although knowing how to speak Tsolyáni has never been required to roleplay in the Empire of the Petal Throne, knowledge of some of the terms is useful. That said, the linguistic adjustment necessary to pronounce a great many of these terms has always proved to be off-putting for some gamers.

The campaign concept is that of ‘Fresh Off the Boat’. The player characters are the equivalent of ‘country bumpkins’, distant cousins who sail ashore at the great Tsolyáni port city of Jakálla and set out to find a place in civilised society. At first they are confined to the Foreigners Quarter, but sooner or later, one of the great clans of Tsolyánu will seek to employ them, sending them off on deniable tasks, perhaps down into the Underworld of built over ruins located under the city. Eventually, their efforts will be recognised and the patron clan will sponsor them for membership of a clan and so allow them to gain citizen and value in the Five Empires. This is very different to the simplistic campaign concepts of the period, which amounted to little more than going down a dungeon, killing the inhabitants and taking their treasure. If such games were about going off and being outsiders, Empire of the Petal Throne was about outsiders earning acceptance and recognition.  

As a campaign concept,  ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ is a clever set-up. It introduces everyone—Referee and players alike to the setting of Tékumel without overloading them with its complexities and subtleties, pulling them both into the society rather than excluding them. Of course, in later iterations of the setting, roleplaying on Tékumel focused on playing citizens and clan members, but in Empire of the Petal Throne, none of these clans are specifically named.

Now Empire of the Petal Throne has been out of print since 2001, but in 2017, the Tékumel Foundation has reprinted it. Unlike the original edition from 1975, it does not come as a thick spiral bound book in a colourful box, accompanied by vibrantly coloured maps and high production values. Instead it comes a single volume which reproduces everything from that version in black and white. In addition, it includes introductions from both creators of Dungeons & Dragons—E. Gary Gygax from the 1975 edition and Dave Arneson from the 1987 reprint from Different Worlds. In all other ways, the Tékumel Foundation edition of Empire of the Petal Throne is a perfect facsimile of the original edition. This includes crisp reproductions of the heavy line art and the accented language and terminology. Amounting to more pages than original 1975 version, its slim size is indicative of just how thick the paper and how high the production values were in that edition!

Once past the introductions by the hobby’s leading lights, Empire of the Petal Throne leaps into a description of Tékumel and its history, ultimately focusing on Tsolyánu and its current political situation—internally and externally. Primarily this is that the current incumbent of the Petal Throne, Hirkáne Tlakotáni, is old and the various political parties and temples are already attempting to manoeuvre their preferred candidate—each one fathered by the emperor—in readiness for the competition to see who will succeed him. Meanwhile, to the north, the Baron Áld, commander of the forces of Yan Kor and Saa Allaqi, has sworn revenge upon Tsolyánu for the death of his mistress and is said to have in his possession an ancient and unstoppable weapon. (Much of this is detailed in the novels, Man of Gold and Flamesong.) Of course much of this will be of little import to characters who are just Fresh Off the Boat, but to the Referee this will be information that is probably going to be important to the patrons who might hire the player characters.

Empire of the Petal Throne is a Class and Level game with just three character professions—Warrior, Priest, or Magician. All are Human. Just as in Dungeons & Dragons, they have an Alignment. This is either Good or Evil—there is no Neutral—and reflects their loyalty to either the Tlomitlányal or the Tlokiriqáluyal. Now it should be noted that unlike future presentations of Tékumel, here the Tlomitlányal are termed the good gods and the Tlokiriqáluyal the evil gods, rather than the gods of Stability and Change. A character has six talents or attributes—Strength, Intelligence, Constitution, Psychic Ability, Dexterity, and Comeliness. These are rolled as percentiles in order and this being an old school roleplaying game, are kept and kept in order, no matter the result. Fortunately, as a character goes up in Level, he will be able to improve his stats. In addition, a character has two types of skills. His Original Skills are background skills, like perfumer, slaver, or orator. These are grouped into Plebian, Skilled, and Noble skills and a player simply rolls for the number his character knows. The results can be very random, but the player chooses what they are. Professional Skills are rolled for and selected in a similar fashion. Like Dungeons & Dragons, characters in Empire of the Petal Throne have Hit Dice and this is the same for each profession—the six-sided die.

Trasune the Butcher
Warrior Level One
Hit Points: 6
Armour Class: 6 (Leather Armour & Shield)

Strength 82 (+1 to hit and damage)
Intelligence 58
Constitution 75 (+1 Hit Points; 60% revivification chance)
Psychic Ability 76 (Somewhat Psychic, +5% chance of spell working)
Dexterity 77 (Clever, +1 to hit)
Comeliness 38

Original Skills
Butcher

Professional Skills
Spearman, Mace/Flail User, Axeman

Bara
Wizard Level One
Hit Points: 3
Armour Class: 7 (Leather Armour)

Strength 21 (Weak, -1 to hit)
Intelligence 94 (Brilliant, +1 to hit and damage, 40% to detect secret doors)
Constitution 67 (Healthy, +1 Hit Points; 60% revivification chance)
Psychic Ability 95 (Quite Psychic, +10% chance of spell working)
Dexterity 45
Comeliness 69 (Good looking)

Original Skills
Paper-ink maker, merchant, scribe-accountant, bird-trainer, scholar

Professional Skills
Control Self, Telekinesis, Illusion, Clairaudience

Uchang
Priest Level One
Hit Points: 5
Armour Class: 7 (Leather Armour)

Strength 58
Intelligence 63 (Smart, +1 to hit)
Constitution 80 (Healthy, +1 Hit Points; 60% revivification chance)
Psychic Ability 62 (Somewhat Psychic, +5% chance of spell working)
Dexterity 82 (Dexterous, +1 to hit and damage)
Comeliness 99 (Wildly Handsome)

Original Skills
Barber, perfumer, tailor, jeweller-goldsmith, animal-trainer, dancer, don juan

Professional Skills
Cure Light Wounds, Production of Light, Detect Good/Evil, Know Two Modern Languages, Know Two Ancient Languages

Overall, character generation is quick and easy, taking a few minutes per character. One thing that hampers this is actually a lack of Tékumeli or at least Tsolyáni names. By modern standards, this is a very odd omission, and even by the standards of 1975, a disappointing omission. Fortunately, these days a list of common names found in Tsolyánu is easily found on the Internet.

Although there are skills, there is not a skill system as such. Really it is up to the Referee to determine the outcome or allow a roll against an attribute. For the Wizard and the Priest, many of the professional skills are actually spells and work like they do in Dungeons & Dragons. The magic system is ostensibly Vancian, cast and forget, again like Dungeons & Dragons, but some spells can be cast more than once per day and there is a chance of a spell not working when cast. The latter though lowers as a Priest or Wizard progresses in Level. Some spells look like spells from Dungeons & Dragons, such as ESP and Light, but others, such as The Grey Hand (instant death, no saving throw) and The Silver Halo of Soul Stealing, are more interesting and particular to the setting. When a character acquires a new Level, he gains more skills—both Original and Professional, and in the case of the Wizard and the Priest, bonus spells. In comparison, the skill gains for the Priest and Wizard roles are much more interesting than those for the Warrior.

Combat in Empire of the Petal Throne looks very much like Dungeons & Dragons. Characters wear armour and have Armour Class, against which a twenty-sided die is rolled. Damage is rolled using six-sided dice, no matter the weapon used. Higher Level characters roll more dice against lower Level characters or opponents. Combat is fairly deadly, especially with the double damage rule for rolls of a natural twenty, as well as the vicious nature of some of the creatures found on Tékumel. Empire of the Petal Throne includes an extensive bestiary—backed up by various sets of encounter tables, covering creatures found on the Sakbe roads (the road-walls which divide and connect Tsolyánu), at sea, in the air, and in the Underworld. They include the horrid Ssú, which hate mankind and which smell of cinnamon and often have the ability to hypnotise mankind; the dragon-like Sérudla with their acid spittle; and the crab-like Ngrútha, which likes to insert its eggs in its prey. The majority of the creatures in Empire of the Petal Throne are illustrated in a heavy pen and ink style, which serves to give the book a very singular look.

In terms of magic items and treasure, Empire of the Petal Throne takes its cue from Dungeons & Dragons, whether that is money, arms, armour, gems, jewellery, and so on. Yet it adds its own items with the inclusion of Eyes, amulets, books, and scrolls. These and their effects are highly detailed and really add flavour and bring out the weirdness of Tékumel, whether it is the Eye of Departing in Safety or The Eye of Ruling as a King in Glory, The Amulet of Perceiving the Scintillation of Metals, and Jnéshtlaq Kéq Yóssu or The Tome of Black Mold. The inclusion of scrolls and books highlight how important knowledge of the past is on Tékumel. One type of magical item that is absent is the potion, although alchemy is available as a skill.

The rest of Empire of the Petal is not really a hodge podge of rules and discussion, but rather it just seems that way. There is everything present for a Referee to run a game—and more. Various sections cover detailed descriptions of both the Tlomitlányal and the Tlokiriqáluyal; taxes, relatives and bequests; building in Tsolyánu; and advice for the Referee, including developing scenarios and a sample snapshot of a section of the Underworld and an example of play. The ‘Fresh Fresh Off the Boat’ campaign is also discussed. These all feel as if they should in different places than where they are in the book, so the discussion of the ‘Fresh Fresh Off the Boat’ campaign comes before the encounter tables and not in the advice section for the Referee. Likewise, the map of Jakálla and its key of interesting place names is placed at the book, but does make for easy reference during play. It is not an insurmountable issue, but it would be something that a prospective Referee should get used to when running the game.

Rounding out Empire of the Petal Throne are appendices that cover pronunciation, the Tsolyáni script, the words and script of the citizen document—a fine reward for any character in the long term, and a map and its key to Jakálla, plus the reference sheets included with Empire of the Petal Throne in 1975.

Physically, for a forty-year old roleplaying game, Empire of the Petal Throne is well presented. The layout style is very much that of a set of wargames rules, but then that was the style of forty years ago—the industry does things differently now. It needs an edit in places, but the writing is assured and interesting. The artwork may look somewhat amateurish by modern standards, but it is striking throughout and some of the scenes depicted really help impart the rich and baroque nature of the setting that the game itself quite cannot. For the problem with Empire of the Petal Throne is that it is an Old School roleplaying game and it is predicated on dungeon—or Underworld—delving just like its mechanical forbear, Dungeons & Dragons. As much as the Underworld is an important feature of the setting, there is more to Tékumel than that. Of course, it would take later roleplaying iterations of the setting to bring that out and it really is unfair to criticise the design for not yet being what it become. This is after all, the starting point.

Empire of the Petal Throne is not perfect, but those imperfections are but three in number. The first two are the aforementioned lack of personal names and Clan names. The inclusion of both would support the game in the long term and support the given campaign outline without the Referee needing to look elsewhere for more information. If there is anything that the Tékumel Foundation could have added to Empire of the Petal Throne, it would have been these names. The third is the description of the Tlomitlányal and the Tlokiriqáluyal as the gods of good and evil respectively. This simply wrong, but again an issue caused by the game’s development from Dungeons & Dragons.

Of course, Empire of the Petal Throne is a piece of nostalgia, but it is surprising that this game is playable despite being rough around the edges, both in terms of the setting and the mechanics. A more modern gamer might want to look at other means of visiting and playing on Tékumel, rather than using this ‘relic’, but Old School players and referees will relish the slightly rough and ready feel of Empire of the Petal Throne. More support for this introduction to Tékumel would certainly be appreciated—perhaps a scenario or two, even a ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ campaign, if not a supplement discussing other ways to approach playing and running Empire of the Petal Throne. Of course, for Petalheads—as Tékumel fans are known—who do not own an original copy of Empire of the Petal Throne, then this reprint represents a chance for them to visit it for the first time, whilst for those that do, it provides a means for them to reference it without having to open their original copy.

—oOo—

A discussion of the ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ campaign can be found in episode #1 of The Hall of Blue Illumination podcast. Empire of the Petal Throne is available in print as a hardback or softback, or as a PDF, from DriveThruRPG.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

A Science Fiction Past

It is almost four-hundred-and-fifty years since the Kuramaja, a sleeper ship from Earth is crash landed on the newly discovered world of Taranis. It is almost four-hundred-and-fifty years since memories of Earth and the location of Earth were lost. It is four-hundred-and-twenty years since the Big Seven—C&C: Colonisation & Construction, Hardcastle Haulage, Hayden Bank, the Mining Conglomerate, Moritasgas Pharmaceuticals, Open Technology, and Smertios Security—took control of their respective monopolies and gained the power as the Consortium that they continue to wield today over colonised space. It is almost three-hundred-and-fifty years since the first wormhole was discovered and opened to exploration. It is three-hundred-and-forty-years since first contact is made with the tentacular, amphibious species, the Eulutians, in the neighbouring Damara System. It is two-hundred-and-sixty-three years since wormholes are stabilised as Jump Gates and two-hundred-and-sixty-two years since first contact is made with insectoid Ximians and ends disastrously, beginning the Bug War which will last for almost two decades. It is sixty-four years since contact is made with the tree-like Vilithi, who subsequently rebel violently against their god-leader and request permission to join the Consortium. It is almost forty years since the former CEO of Hardcastle Haulage led an open rebellion against the Consortium for their having sanctioned him and his company for its extensive smuggling operations. It is almost thirty years since the first cranial implant was developed and a little more than twenty years since the first neurally-controlled limbs were developed. It is only a year since the Resistance revealed plans by members of the Big Seven to wipe open the non-human races in the Consortium. It only this year that Gaia Adaptation and Adjustment, the Eulutian-led company which developed Enviromorphic Fungi, the edible fungi capable of growing anywhere, is invited to join the Big Seven—which becomes the Big Eight. This is despite several assassination attempts on its CEO, Gueya.

This is the history and setting for Era: The Consortium, a Science Fiction roleplaying game released by English publisher, Shades of Vengeance. It is set in the far future and takes place across twelve planets and moons spread across three systems connected by Jump Gates. It is dominated by the major corporations of the Big Seven—later the Big Eight—and despite the influence of the Senate, political body consisting of representatives from the other corporations, is a ‘corporatocracy’. Throughout its history, the Consortium has been beset by two tensions. The first is between the Big Seven and the Senate, the malfeasance of one leading to the dominance of the other, but in the case of the Senate, never for very long. The second is racial tension, in turn against the Eulutians, the Ximians, and the Vilithi, the Big Seven often extorting them for their labour. Even as each of the new species is accepted into the Consortium as citizens equal to Humanity and the Big Seven and other corporations employ them on an equal footing—though this often appears to be for publicity purposes than anything else, factions within the Big Seven are formulating and executing terrible plans of extermination against them. The setting is supported with an extensive equipment section, which covers weaponry, spaceships, cybernetics, and more, including personal shield technology.

The major point of Era: The Consortium and its history is that the Game Master and his players can drop into key points along the timeline and play out the events at each of those points. To that end, the core rulebook gives six campaign concepts set at these points. These include a multi-character exploration of the founding of the Consortium in ‘The Origin of the Consortium’; a multi-team military campaign against the Ximians in ‘The Bug War’ a la Starship Troopers, including the use of armoured battlesuits; and ‘The Resistance Begins’ explores the rise of the rebellion against the Big Seven that would eventually see the elevation of the Gaia Adaptation and Adjustment corporation. Each campaign concept is broken down into two, four, six, or eight sessions, each session being outlined with the events that should occur during that session. Both the length of these outlines and the level of detail they contain varies from campaign concept to campaign concept, but there is enough in each, backed up with the descriptive content contained in the lengthy history, for the Game Master to extract multiple sessions of gameplay.

The setting and campaign concepts allow for a wide variety of character concepts, whether that is a sharp pilot, bodge-it engineer, studied scientist, determined soldier, crafty corporate officer, learned scholar, sneaky spy, radical revolutionary, dogged investigator, slippery lawyer, and so on. Most of these are familiar from any other Science Fiction setting or roleplaying, but what marks the character options out as different are the alien races in Era: The Consortium. Humans dominate, but Era: The Consortium does a good job of presenting its alien races as being different, but having integrated themselves into Consortium space. So for example, the Eulutians wear thought-controlled exosuits that resemble human bodies to survive outside of water and better interact with Humans. The suits though, allow the Eulutians to continue expressing their emotions as shifts in colour and even have interfaces through which they can extend one or more tentacles. The insectoid Ximians, consisting of three castes—Worker, Brain, and Politician—and each of these has adjusted to roles within the many corporations of the Consortium, such as Politician negotiators or lawyers, Brain engineers and scientists, and Worker soldiers and labourers. The tree-like Vilithii can actually physically adapt to the desired form. As a consequence, they tend to be humanoid in shape, but multi-armed, multi-legged, and no-limbed forms are common. It is also possible for a Vilithii to change shape, though this takes time.

To create a character in Era: The Consortium, a player selects a concept, a race, and backstory, assigns attribute points and skill points, and then selects skill specialities, implants, and equipment. A character has eight attributes, divided into three groups: Potence (Strength, Intelligence and Charisma), Defence (Stamina and Willpower), and Reaction (Dexterity, Wits and Luck). Each group is assigned a pool of points—six, five, or four—which are then divided between the attributes in the group. Similarly the skills are divided into three groups of six—Personal, Technical, and Interpersonal. Each group is assigned a pool of points—eleven, seven, or four—which are then divided between the six attributes in a group. If a character has a value of three or more in a skill, he can select specialties related to that skill. Specialities are also available that are related to derived stats and from a character’s species. A character begins play with a maximum of three specialities. In recent years, it is standard practice in the Consortium to be fitted with a cranial implant to enhance the memory and allow easy computer interface, but other implants are available and a player character begins play with one of these. 

Numerous suggestions are included in Era: The Consortium, for both Consortium characters and Resistance characters. They include a C&C: Colonisation & Construction Engineer, a Hardcastle Haulage Pilot, and an Open Technology Hacker for the former, and a Resistance Defector, a Resistance Face, and a Resistance Forger for the latter. Our sample character is a Consortium corporate accountant specialising in fraud detection.

Woollan

Concept: Forensic Accountant
Race: Eulutian
Backstory: Hayden Bank Accountant
Quirk: Obsessive

Potence
Strength 2 Intelligence 4 Charisma 3

Defence
Stamina 3 Willpower 3

Reaction
Dexterity 3 Wits 3 Luck 3

Personal Skills
Brawl 3, Investigation 4, Larceny 3, Melee 0, Stealth 1, Survival 1

Technical Skills
Computer 3, Drive 0, Engineering 0, Explosives 0, Gunnery 0, Medicine 0, Pilot 1

Interpersonal Skills 
Commercial 3, Esteem 0, Instruction 1, Intimidation 0, Persuasion 3, Seduction 0

Specialities
Investigation (Thorough); Computer (Knowing the Back Doors); Persuasion (That was Convincing).

Derived Stats
Size 4, Health & Pain 7, Initiative Modifier 6, Speed 9, Defence 3, Encumbrance 9, Damage & Kill Modifiers 0

Morality: Straight Arrow
Exosuit: Kirii Suit
Implants: Neural Interface

Mechanically, Era: The Consortium uses the Era d10 ruleset. This is a dice pool system, with a player a number of dice equal to his character’s attribute plus skill. Specialities, Quirks, instructional help, and situational bonuses will add dice, whilst situational penalties will reduce the number of dice. A Success is scored for each result that exceeds the Threshold, this varying according to the difficulty of the task—Very Easy (two or three), Easy (four or five), Medium (six or seven), Hard (eight or nine), or Very Hard (ten). Tens explode, allowing more dice to be rolled, but rolls with more ones than Successes result in a fumble. This can be as mild as a weapon jamming or as bad as the character losing a limb, depending on how many ones are rolled. Likewise, the number of Successes rolled will determine the effect, from a minor success for one or two successes rolled to an extreme success for seven or more Successes being rolled. Unskilled rolls instead rely upon a combination of the selected attribute and the Luck attribute. In general, the fewer the number of dice a player has to roll, the greater the likelihood of any roll resulting in a fumble of some kind. Players also have access to Luck Points, which can be used to add Successes to their rolls or deduct them from the opposition’s rolls. Conversely, the Game Master has access to Bad Luck points to spend on the opposition.

The mechanics in Era: The Consortium cover personal, vehicle, and spaceship combat. Combat is notable in Era: The Consortium in that although a character can suffer pain and loss of health incrementally over the course of a fight, it is possible for weapons to exceed a character’s Kill Threshold, which will result in the character’s death. Era: The Consortium is not a space opera, but is much grittier as well as much deadlier. Armour, personal shields, hitting first, and of course, avoiding combat in the first place will all help counter this likelihood. Running combat is aided by the inclusion of several flowcharts, whilst ‘Hardcore Rules’ enable the Game Master to adjust his game if he and his players want it to be more challenging.

The bulk of the advice for the Game Master is devoted to the aforementioned campaign outlines. What advice there is, really amounts to a page of bullet points. Physically, Era: The Consortium is a thick and sturdy book (both softback and hardback copies are available). Notably, it is profusely illustrated in full colour and these illustrations are never less than decent. The layout is cramped though, with the timeline often seemingly hidden in the timeline fiction, and the editing often underwhelming. The history in particular suffers from this and is in places, laborious going.

There is no denying the ambition and effort which has gone into Era: The Consortium. The idea of being able to go into its history timeline and play out its events is interesting, but this may not be to everyone’s liking and the advice for the Game Master does not explore what happens if the players and their characters change the course of events and so change the course of the history of the Consortium. What this feels like is as if the Game Master is expected to run the author’s campaign rather than his own. It does not help that the fiction illustrating the various scenes throughout the history is often just a bit obtuse and either gets in the way of the facts being given by the timeline or in effect, simply replaces the timeline. The author also leaves the Game Master on his own if he wants to explore the future of the Consortium rather the past. Another issue is the xenophobia that runs through that history as not every group is going to want to explore or play that through. 

Despite these issues, there is an interesting setting at the heart of Era: The Consortium for the Game Master to develop and it comes with a solid, if deadly and not unlike the Storyteller System used by White Wolf, Inc., set of mechanics. There is capacity to do a variety of different games and genres, including cyberpunk, military, espionage Science Fiction as well as others. The setting is also supported with a number of supplements. So there is room for the Game Master to run the Era: The Consortium as he wants rather than adhering strictly to the timeline.

—oOo—


Era: The Consortium - A Universe of Expansions 2 is currently being funded on Kickstarter.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

A Taste of the Far East

The setting for 7th Sea, the roleplaying game of swashbuckling and sorcery published by John Wick Presents is the land of Théah. Yet there are lands beyond Théah, which the publisher is only beginning to address with the supplement, 7th Sea: Crescent Empire, which explores the lands immediately to the east of Théah. Yet there are lands beyond this, far to the east—Khitai. Although Khitai marks the return of the designer to the same genre as his highly regarded Legend of the Five Rings, that is, Asian fantasy, 7th Sea: Khitai is different in that it does not dwell solely on its Japanese and Chinese influences and sources. Instead, it encompasses numerous sources and influences and encompasses numerous nations and cultures, from China, Japan, and India to Cambodia, Australasia, and Oceania. Much of the pleasure of seeing these nations and cultures included is that many of them are rarely visited by roleplaying.

The first taste of Khitai comes in the form of 7th Sea: Khitai Quickstart, which includes an overview of the setting and its themes along with a complete adventure. On a very personal level, the difference in themes between Théah and Khitai is twofold. The first is that the heroes—or player characters—are not driven to adventure, but pulled by the Call to Adventure, a very real, spiritual urge to fulfill their destiny. This call is made by the Song of the World and places a duty upon the heroes that is much greater than their personal desires. The second is that in Khitai, honour is supernatural rather than personal.

7th Sea: Khitai uses the same mechanics as 7th Sea. These are essentially ‘roll and pair’, the players and the Game Master rolling pools of ten-sided dice to create ‘pairs’ of one, two, three, or more dice that each add up to ten or more. Each ‘pair’ is a Raise, which are spent to carry out actions in Action and Dramatic scenes. For the player characters, these pools are created from a combination of a character’s trait plus skill, for example, Honesty + Convince or Peace + Brawl. These combinations are called Approaches, which define how a character will do something. For example, Joy + Weaponry if a character wants to smash his way through a Brute Squad—the equivalent of a band of minions or goons or guards in Khitai—using her tetsubo or Wisdom + Mysticism if a character wants to search his memory for what he knows of a particular Kamuy or nature spirit. Bonus dice are rewarded for varying a character’s Approach from action to action and for providing an engaging description of said Approaches. In comparison, the Game Master rolls a pool of dice equal to the Strength of the Villain or Brute Squad.

In a scene, Raises are then spent to inflict or block damage, to avoid Consequences—bad things that might happen to a character, to purchase Opportunities—advantages and bonuses that a character can find or gain in a scene, and to discover clues in a scene. Although the dice rolling mechanic is very much that of the traditional roleplaying game, the application is much more akin to that of a storytelling roleplaying game.

There is one change in the rules between 7th Sea: Khitai and 7th Sea, a rule that the Game Master can import back to 7th Sea if he so desires. This is how Brute Squads work and the rule change makes them much more of a challenge. In combat in 7th Sea, a Brute Squad inflicts wounds, one wound per Raise, which a character counters with his Raises also on a one-for-one basis. In Khitai, when the Game Master spends Raises for a Brute Squad, it does not inflict Wounds on a one-for-one basis, but rather inflicts Wounds equal to the current Strength of the Brute Squad. The character can still counter this attack with a Raise and so block the Wounds.

The 7th Sea: Khitai QuickStart introduces the setting and its rules in smart fashion. Barring the change in how Brute Squads work, the Game Master and his players will have no issue with the rules if they have played 7th Sea. Likewise, someone new to both 7th Sea and Khitai may not adjust as easily to the roleplaying game’s more storytelling rules if they are used to traditional games. Even though there is a limited amount of space in 7th Sea: Khitai Quickstart, it could have done with deeper examples of play, especially given the switch it makes from traditional to storytelling roleplaying games. This is because it makes a radical change in the names it gives the player characters’ Traits. In 7th Sea, these are Brawn, Finesse, Resolve, Wits, and Panache—a very traditional set of characteristics and easy to apply. In Khitai, the Traits are Compassion, Honesty, Joy, Loyalty, Peace, Respect, and Wisdom. Now a character only has five of these seven, these five being the ones they value, but they are more conceptual in nature and not as easy to apply on a case by case basis.

There are seven nations described in Khitai, but only two are detailed in the 7th Sea: Khitai QuickStart and visited in the adventure, ‘Life-Giving Sword, Death-Giving Sword’. The first nation is the island archipelago of Fuso, known for the rift between its traditional shaman-chieftains and the upstart warlord leaders, or daimyos, the most ambitious of which would rule not just Fuso, but all of Khitai. The shaman-chieftains are also capable of talking with the kamuy, which are natural spirits, guardian angels, ancestor spirits, and so on. In this, Khitai draws from the Ainu mystical tradition rather than from the Kami and mystical traditions of Japan. The second nation is the Kingdom of Han, noted for its scholastic and artistic excellence—as well as the literacy of its people—though riven by nepotism and corruption, including in its military.

‘Life-Giving Sword, Death-Giving Sword’ is a three act scenario, a tale of love, greed, and revenge. The heroes are travelling when they realise that they are close to a monastery where they sheltered before, but upon arriving at its doors, they find that it has literally just burned down. Investigation reveals that it was no accident and worse, an ancient and mystical blade is missing. Duty bound, the heroes must follow the thief across Fuso and beyond, harried by assassins and bandits along the way. Alongside the combat, there are scenes involving investigation, persuasion, and negotiation, so there is plenty of opportunity for the heroes to exercise their skills and do so creatively. Overall, ‘Life-Giving Sword, Death-Giving Sword’ is a very straightforward scenario, almost linear, and presented in a step-by-step fashion. This makes it easy to run and the Game Master should have no issues running the scenario.

Rounding out 7th Sea: Khitai QuickStart are five player characters, ready to play ‘Life-Giving Sword, Death-Giving Sword’. They include a female mystic and clan heir, a male samurai advisor and duellist, a female warrior monk, a male courtier from Han, and a male spymaster, exiled from another nation, Shenzhou. This is a good mix and they are clearly presented and laid out, with clear explanations of their abilities and their advantages.

Physically, the 7th Sea: Khitai QuickStart is a well presented and easy read. The writing needs an edit here and there, but this is a minor issue. Much like 7th Sea, the 7th Sea: Khitai QuickStart is superbly illustrated in full colour with great artwork that captures some of mysticism and action of the setting.

If the 7th Sea: Khitai QuickStart has an issue, it is that it does not address the honour as supernatural aspect of the setting as well as it does the Call to Adventure. This though, will not stop the Game Master from successfully running the scenario and the players from enjoying it. This is an excellent scenario and should provide an engaging session or two’s worth of roleplaying and excitement. Not too complex and with the right mix of ingredients and challenges, 7th Sea: Khitai QuickStart is an excellent introduction to Khitai and a good option for a group looking for a one-shot or a taster.

—oOo—

7th Sea: Khitai is currently funding on Kickstarter.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

de Harken Inheritance II

MontiDots Ltd. publishes both horror and fantasy scenarios. The former, The Fenworthy Inheritance and The Smoking Mirror, are set in the Jazz Age of the 1920s and written for use with the GORE™ Open Game Content Rules published by Goblinoid Games—best known for the Old School Renaissance Retroclone, Labyrinth Lord—means that they are surprisingly compatible with the mechanics of Call of Cthulhu. The latter, consisting of the trilogy, MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall, MD3 Necromancer’s Bane, and MD5 Tantulus, are written for use Knights & Knaves’ OSRIC™ System (Old School Reference and Index Compilation) for its mechanics. This means that it is roughly compatible with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but the advantage of this and many other Old School Renaissance roleplaying games, scenarios, and supplements is how compatible they are with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

This trilogy takes place in and around the village of Highcliff Gard, located at the heart of Highcliff Gard Vale in the south of Fiefdom of Kaldemar. Insular and isolated, there are major differences between the world of MD3 Necromancer’s Bane and that of standard Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy. Both the people and the valley are, in particular, this showing in their attitude towards Dwarves, Elves, Halflings, and the like. Locally, they are known as the ‘Erle Folk’ and possess the ‘Fae Sight’ to one degree or another. Notably, the peoples of Highcliff Gard Vale are ill disposed towards them. This means that all player character ‘Erle Folk’ will have the Fae Sight and if they Elves, suffer some prejudice, so the players do need to know that their characters are going to be subject to xenophobia and be okay with that before play starts.

The reasons for the prejudice lie at the heart of the trilogy, but are fully explained in the scenario’s appendix, as are the changes to both the Cleric and Magic-User Classes. Clerics in Highcliff Gard are polytheistic, worshipping a pantheon rather than a single god and making offerings to each of the gods of the pantheon as necessary. This gives Clerics access to a wide range of spheres and thus spells, the given pantheon for Highcliff Gard suggesting a Norse influence—no surprise given that the designer is from Yorkshire. Magic-Users can brew potions with the aid of a liquid known as Aqua Conjurum, which is brewed by alchemists typically of higher Level.

Designed for First Level and Second Level characters, MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall brought the adventurers to Highcliff Gard and had them investigate the strange curse which beset the valley’s rulers, the de Harken family. This saw them investigate a recently discovered complex of rooms and tunnels below Harken Hall. The relatively small dungeon revealed the nature of the curse and pointed towards to a possible cure. Locating this cure lies at the heart of MD3 Necromancer’s Bane: An Adventure for characters of 3rd to 5th level and the catacombs cut in the south cliff face of Highcliff Gard Vale. It is here that the peoples of the valley inter their dead—and it is from here that knocking sounds have been heard…

What lies beyond the doors leading into the catacombs is a good-sized dungeon, with its sixty-six halls, tombs, crypts, and shrines split across two levels. Just as in the dungeon in MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall, this dungeon is rich in funereal, memorial, and sepulchral detail, almost Victorian in its oppressiveness. There are rooms and locations here whose description are a page or more in length and the players are likely to want to take notes as their characters explore its furthest reaches. Given that this is a catacomb, it should be no surprise that the dungeon is rife with the undead, not all of it inimical to the player characters, but as they advance into its depths, it should become apparent that some demonic presence is working against them. Although the adventurers can withdraw once their objective is complete, that is finding the means to a cure to the de Harken family curse, confronting this presence will both ease their exit and help their efforts in future scenarios.

Given the nature of foes faced in MD3 Necromancer’s Bane, the party will definitely require a Cleric as well as the usual Fighters, Magic-Users, and Thieves. They will also need magic and magic items capable of working against the undead. Certainly, blessed weapons are the bare minimum. Fortunately, the scenario provides multiple means and weapons, though they will have to search for them, so it pays for the characters to be methodical in their exploration. Another aid that the party will have is a set of keys to the catacombs, lent by the Keeper of the Catacombs, which will grant them access to the majority of the complex. Actually obtaining these keys is handled in a delightfully macabre scene that the Game Master will enjoy roleplaying. In fact, this scene is probably the scenario’s best roleplaying moment, as the rest is mostly exploration and combat.

One idea presented in MD3 Necromancer’s Bane is that since the adventurers are exploring a catacomb where the dead of lawful, abiding citizens are interred, looting their final resting place may not exactly be, well, lawful, and further, it may be aiding the demonic presence at the heart of the dungeon. Conversely, lawful acts may hinder him. Unfortunately, this is left undeveloped and up to the Game Master to work out how this would be applied in game. This is such a shame as this could have rewarded the players and their characters in ways other than treasure as well as giving opportunities to roleplay their characters’ Alignments. Further, it comes after MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall went to great lengths to reward the characters for doing more than just killing creatures and taking their treasure—so this is even more of a missed opportunity.

As with MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall, the format for MD3 Necromancer’s Bane is that of a spiralbound book. This allows it to sit flat on the table and easy to flip through. Again, as with MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall, the author has done the illustrations in MD3 Necromancer’s Bane and they are very good indeed. It is a pity that there is not a booklet of pictures illustrating both rooms, foes, and objects, as they would make for excellent handouts. The cartography is decent, much better than in MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall, the dungeon being done in quite a bit of detail. What lets the book down is the editing, which could be tighter, suffering from self-edited as it does.

Being quite so tightly tied to the events of MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall, the Game Master will need to work hard if he plans to run MD3 Necromancer’s Bane as a standalone adventure rather than as a sequel. In fact, it would be easier to run MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall than all of that effort!

Where MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall focused on investigation and exploration, MD3 Necromancer’s Bane shifts its focus to exploration and combat. It is very much more of a classic dungeon and thus a classic dungeon adventure, so will be much more of change if the Game Master is running it as a sequel to MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall than if run as a standalone. Overall though—and despite missing a trick or two—MD3 Necromancer’s Bane is a good dungeon and a decent adventure.

—oOo—

MontiDots Ltd does not currently have a website. Copies of MD3 Necromancer’s Bane and other scenarios are available direct from the author.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Inside the End of the World

One of the disappointing aspects of Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days is that it limits the types of characters that the players can choose from. In ‘traditional’ and more familiar—if slightly gonzo—post-apocalypse roleplaying games, the options include pure strain humans, mutant humans, mutant animals, and mutant plants, but in the Swedish roleplaying game originally published by Free League Publishing and published in English by Modiphius Entertainment, the only option is the mutant human, or simply, the mutant. That changes with the release of Mutant: Genlab Alpha, which is either a roleplaying game and campaign of its own or a supplement to Mutant: Year Zero, depending on how the Game Master wants to use it. Mutant: Genlab Alpha adds anthropomorphic animals to the setting of Mutant: Year Zero and supports their addition with a campaign that can be run prior to—or parallel to—the campaign outlined in Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days. Or the Game Master can simply ignore the campaign and use the book as a supplement to add the animals to his campaign from the start.

Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, just like the forthcoming Mutant: Mechatron - Rise of the Robots Roleplaying, the setting for Mutant: Genlab Alpha and the campaign—‘Escape from Paradise’—is Paradise Valley, a valley high in the mountains, the high slopes covered in snow enough for skiing. The valley is closed off, entrance and exit prevented by a double electric fence. Within the confines of the valley can be found forests, rivers, swamps, lakes, islands, and more. It is inhabited by nine tribes, each consisting of a specific type of animal. These are the Ape, Badger, Bear, Cat, Dog, Moose, Rabbit, Rat, and Reptile tribes. Each of these tribes lives separately to each other and consists of several species. For example, the Ape tribe consists of the Chimpanzees, Gorillas, and Orangutans, whilst Rabbits and Hares are part of the Rabbit tribe. Maintaining near constant surveillance on the tribes are the robotic Watchers—Creepers, the spider-like service drones, the airborne Drones, and tracked and armed Sentinels being the most common—which set up roadblocks, carry out raids, track the inhabitants, and even abduct the animals for experimentation in the near mythic Labyrinth under the valley. This is done, to varying degrees, with the complicit acceptance of the tribes to whom the existence of humanity has faded into myth. For example, many of the tribes are riddled with informants who work the watchers, whilst the Dog tribe readily accepts and supports the activities of the Watchers, whilst the Rabbit tribe is at all but open war with the robots and their unknown master. Between them, with cells established throughout Paradise Valley and the tribes is the Resistance. This loose organisation seeks to overthrow the Watchers and perhaps escape the confines of the valley.

The default set-up in Mutant: Genlab Alpha and ‘Escape from Paradise’ is that the player character are inhabitants of Paradise Valley, the members of one or more tribes. At least one of their number is a member of the Resistance and the likelihood is that the other player characters will quickly follow suit as the events of the campaign play out. These are built around a series of key events—abductions by the Watchers, searching for a means to counter the Watchers, discovering some of the secrets of the Labyrinth, and more—ultimately coming to a climax in an assault on the Watchers’ base and revelations as to the true nature of Paradise Valley. The campaign is supported by both descriptions and mechanics.

The mechanics track the growth and activities of the insurgency conducted by the Resistance and how the Watchers react to its activities. Where in Mutant: Year Zero the player characters conduct an Assembly prior to their adventures to determine what their tribe will do and what technology they will develop, in Mutant: Genlab Alpha, the player characters and the Game Master carry out a Strategic Turn to determine what the Resistance and the Watchers do, and what the outcome will be. This is in addition to the effects of the player character operations. The Strategic Turn roughly reflects a month or so at game time, but the Game Master is free to increase or decrease its frequency to adjust the speed of the campaign as necessary. The description details five of the valley’s nine tribes and their homes, as well as the Labyrinth—or Genlab Alpha—and ultimately, what happens after the player characters and the Resistance have been successful and the surviving animal tribes escape into the Zone of Mutant: Year Zero and make contact with the surviving humanity. Some further possibilities are explored in the supplement, Mutant: Year Zero Zone Compendium 3: Die, Meat-Eater, Die!.

In Mutant: GenLab, the player characters are not mutants, but animals. Anthropomorphic animals who have been altered and uplifted to be able to speak, read, and use tools. Some may have Mutant powers just as those that live in the Zone far beyond Paradise Valley, for the Rot that sickens and mutates those that come into contact with it can be found in the valley just as it pervades the Zone. (If a player character decides to have a mutant power, then the Game Master will need access to Mutant: Year Zero as none are given in Mutant: Genlab Alpha.) Most though, are not mutants, for the tribes treat such creatures as ‘tainted’ and mistrust them. Instead each animal must constantly contend with their true feral nature that threatens to overwhelm their newly created intelligence and reasoning. Each species has certain abilities, be it the Amphibian power of the Reptile tribe that lets them fight and breath underwater; the Flight Response of the Rabbit, Rat, and Moose tribes to move away from danger; or the Warning Call of the Ape and Dog tribes, which allows them to pass on a simple message with a bark or a howl. Each time an animal uses one of these Feral Powers, there is the chance that he will give into his feral nature and run away and hide. An animal lost this way must be found and healed back to its rightful intelligence.

A character in Mutant: Genlab Alpha looks similar to a character from Mutant: Year Zero, but there are several differences. Obviously, a character has a tribe and a species, which determines his key attribute, his animal or feral powers, and how he regains lost Instinct. His tribe also determines his Lab name, always drawn from a certain type of famous people from the Old World, plus a two-digit number. For example, apes are named after physicists and rats after composers. That said, members of the Resistance often adopt a name other than their Lab name. Like Mutant: Year Zero, a character has four attributes—Strength, Agility, Wits and Instinct, the latter replacing Empathy from Mutant: Year Zero and representing an animal’s presence and ability to communicate silently. These are rated between one and five, as are the game’s skills. Of these, the basic skills of Comprehend, Endure, Force, Fight, Heal, Move, Scout, Sense Emotion, Shoot, and Sneak are the same as in Mutant: Year Zero. Know Nature, essentially knowledge of Paradise Valley, replaces Know the Zone, whilst Dominate replaces Manipulate. The latter is an important difference, because where humans lie, flatter, and manipulate, animals simply pull rank and dominate. Each animal also has a Rank rating, reflecting their place in their tribe’s hierarchy. Also, Dominate rolls are a means to gain Experience Points if successfully made against NPCs of a greater Rank. Each player character also has a role, each with an associated special skill and talents. These are Healer, Hunter, Scavenger, Seer, and Warrior. Each Role also gives options for determining a character’s relationships to the other player characters and NPCs, his Big Dream, and his Gear. 

Actually creating a character involves selecting a Tribe and Species, a Role, and Lab name. A character’s age will determine how many points a player has to assign to attributes and skills. The player chooses one Talent from those available for his Role and two Animal Powers from those available for his Species. Age and Role determines his starting Rank, whilst the player should select his character’s relationships and Big Dream from his Role. 

Elway 07 is a member of the Rabbit tribe, the most militant tribe in Paradise Valley. He has dreamed of the tribe finding a true home far away, though he does not know where. He wants to find where it is and believes that he must start his search in the valley. He is thus ready to leave the tribe for the first time and go on his first quest.

Elway 07
Tribe: Rabbit Species: Rabbit
Age: Youngster
Role: Seer Rank: 5

Attributes
Strength 3, Agility 3, Wits 4, Instinct 5

Skills
Endure (Strength) 0, Force (Strength) 0, Fight (Strength) 0, Sneak (Agility) 1, Move (Agility) 1, Shoot (Agility) 0, Scout (Wits) 0, Comprehend (Wits) 0, Know Nature (Wits) 0, Sense Emotion (Instinct) 2, Dominate (Instinct) 1, Heal (Instinct) 0, The Seer’s Skill (Instinct) 2

Talents
Sudden Visions

Animal Powers
Sixth Sense, Herbivore

Relationships
Edwards 24 (PC) will die soon. You better remind him. All the time.
Feynman 18 (PC) should have performed a heroic deed by now. What is he waiting for?
Spielberg 41 (PC) is strong enough to carry you when you are exhausted. A Seer needs her rest.
Octavia 13 (PC) seems to doubt your divinations. How rude!

You hate… The Seer, Marino 13, whose divinations are always the opposite of yours.
You want to protect… The Hunter, Mahler 17, who supplies you with food and water.

Your Big Dream
To find the new and safe haven for the tribe that you have seen in your visions.

Gear
2 rations of food, 4 rations of water, seer staff

Appearance
Face: Amulets around the neck, Body: Slender, Clothes: Raggedy tailcoat

Mechanically, Mutant: Genlab Alpha uses the same system as Mutant: Year Zero—a mix of specialised dice and cards, also published by Free League Publishing and Modiphius Entertainment. The content of cards though, representing Animal Powers, Artifacts, and Threats are reproduced in the pages of Mutant: Genlab Alpha and so are not absolutely necessary to play game. The dice are another matter. All six-sided dice, they are divided into three types—the yellow Base dice, the green Skill dice, and the black Gear dice. In addition to the number six all dice are marked with the radiation symbol on that face. This indicates a success when rolled. On the 1 face of the yellow Base dice there is a biohazard symbol, whilst on the 1 face of the black Gear dice, there is an explosion symbol. Rolling either symbol is counted as a failure. The green Skill dice do not have an extra symbol of their 1 faces. Now a game of Mutant: Genlab Alpha can be run without using the specific Mutant: Year Zero dice, but it does at least require pools of the three different coloured dice to represent the Base, Gear, and Skill dice.

To undertake an action, a character assembles a dice pool consisting of Base, Gear, and Skill dice. These should be yellow Base dice equal to the attribute used, black Gear dice equal to the Bonus for the item of any Gear used, and green Skill dice equal to his skill. A roll of six on any of the dice rolled counts as a success, but rolling more successes are better as these can be spent on stunts. The types of stunt available are listed skill by skill. So with the Fight skill, you might inflict extra damage, grab an opponent’s weapon, or knock him over, while with Comprehend, you would not only work out how how an artefact works, you could teach others too. If no sixes are rolled, then the action is a failure. The results are even worse if ones or biohazard symbols on the yellow Base dice or explosion symbols on the black Gear dice are rolled. Each biohazard rolled inflicts a point of trauma on the associated attribute, but also generates a Feral Point that can be used to activate a character’s Animal Powers. Each explosion rolled causes the gear used to degrade and so reduces the Bonus it provides on future actions, until repaired that is. If a character fails to roll any radiation symbols—or not enough, he can push the roll and reroll any dice that did came up as Biohazard, Explosion, or Radiation symbols.

Once a character has Feral Points, his player can spend them to activate the character’s animal powers. This requires a dice roll and there is the chance that a character might go feral instead of using a power. If this happens, there is also the possibility, that a new animal power might be unlocked. As in Mutant: Year Zero, combat in Mutant: Genlab Alpha is quick and nasty. A character can perform either an action and a maneuvre or two maneuvres each turn. An Action is anything that requires a skill roll or activation of a Mutation, whereas a maneuvre covers anything else that might do—move, dive for cover, draw a weapon, aim a gun, reload a gun, and so on. Trauma, whether from being attacked or intimidated, or when Pushing a roll, comes in four types each of which decreases one of a character’s attributes. So Damage decreases Strength and can inflict critical injuries, Fatigue decreases Agility, Confusion decreases Wits, and Doubt decreases Instinct, which essentially means that Damage and Fatigue covers physical trauma and Confusion and Doubt covers social and mental trauma. When an attribute is reduced to zero, then a character is broken and cannot use skills, perform actions, or activate mutations. A broken character can be killed with a coup de grâce

As well as progressing in the ‘Escape from Paradise’, player characters can also earn Experience Points, a character needing to have accrued five into order to improve a skill or acquire a new talent. Experience Points are earned in several ways. These include simple participation in a session; sacrificing something for the Resistance or the tribe; or risking something for a favourite NPC or player character, to undermine or thwart a loathed NPC, or for a character’s Big Dream. The Game Master has the final say in how many points are awarded, but it involves discussion beforehand by the players. The end of a session or adventure is also an opportunity for a character to reevaluate his relationships and his Big Dream. In addition, a character’s Rank in a tribe may rise according to his actions during the previous adventure. 

Physically, Mutant: Genlab Alpha is an impressive looking book. Done in full colour, the artwork is excellent and very much sets the tone for the campaign. This is grim, after all, the animals are fenced in, watched, and sometimes experimented upon, but also with a slight comedic touch. After all, these are animals doing things that would not normally do—skiing, lounging and smoking on a sofa, listening to a gramophone, and so on. Yet, Mutant: Genlab Alpha is a not a game to be played for pure laughs. The book even warns against this. Any humour present is sardonic at most, for neither the setting nor the campaign never let the Game Master or the players forget the grim nature of the animals’ predicament.

That said, an issue with the artwork is that it does show a lot of the animals smoking. That may be a satire on the labtests conducted on animals of old, but it leaves the reader to wonder where the inexhaustible supply of cigarettes is to be found in Paradise Valley. The maps are also good, especially the one depicting Paradise Valley placed inside the front and back cover. Although the contents of the campaign could have been slightly better organised, the writing is good throughout and is light enough to make Mutant: Genlab Alpha accessible and easy to run. 

Mutant: Year Zero and Mutant: Genlab Alpha both deal with community and secrets. In Mutant: Year Zero, the mutants are leaving the community of the Ark to discover the secrets of the outside world in the Zone and return with the means to improve their community. In Mutant: Genlab Alpha, the animals know where their communities (or tribes) are and know that the threat they face stands on their doorstep and sometimes within their homes. Uncovering the secrets associated with this threat is the key to the animals eventually escaping their confinement. In addition, where the mutants of Mutant: Year Zero must contend with the dangers of what they are becoming or mutating into, the animals in Mutant: Genlab Alpha must contend with their inner nature, with the base creatures they once were. The clash between the animals and the mutants lends itself to some interesting roleplaying situations once the animals escape Paradise Valley and enter the Zone.

If there is a real issue to Mutant: Genlab Alpha it is perhaps that the ‘Escape from Paradise’ campaign is all too short and quickly escalates as the player characters get involved. What it needs is more scenarios to set up the situation at the beginning of the campaign, to establish both the normality of the tribes’ situation and the player characters with the knowledge of Paradise Valley. The encounter tables included in Mutant: Genlab Alpha will help the Game Master towards that end, but a supplement adding extra scenarios would be a nice addition.

Mutant: Genlab Alpha works well as a supplement to Mutant: Year Zero as it does a standalone book. The campaign is perhaps a little short and the focus upon the campaign and the enclosed nature of the campaign means that Mutant: Genlab Alpha does not offer as much game play as Mutant: Year Zero does. Yet, what Mutant: Mutant: Genlab Alpha does offer, a grim campaign and setting and expanded character options, is engaging and accessible, just as with Mutant: Year Zero.

Friday, 3 November 2017

A Larder of Life and Death

If there is a singular feature to Dungeon Crawl Classics, the retroclone published by Goodman Games, it is the ‘Character Funnel’. This takes Zero Level player characters—usually four per player—and pushes them through a Zero Level dungeon. Devoid of the abilities and Hit Points that a Class would grant them, a Class is what each of these player characters aspires to and can acquire if they survive the challenge each of them will face in the dungeon. Thus prepared by their terrible experiences they can go onto greater adventures of ever higher and higher Levels. In the meantime, there is the ‘Character Funnel’ in which there is death and danger aplenty, as well as a challenge for the designer, because every has to present the right mix of death and danger if any of the characters are to survive. This is because the characters lack the abilities, spells, and combat acumen that First Level adventurers possess, instead they have to rely upon their luck and their wits.

Published by Purple Sorcerer Games, Nebin Pendlebrook’s Perilous Pantry is one such ‘Character Funnel’. It takes place in Bitterweed Barrow, a village unaccustomed to mysterious tunnels, missing halflings, or the need for brave adventurers. Yet with the discovery of the disappearance of Nebin Pendlebrook, a local Halfling, down a dark tunnel he found whilst expanding his pantry, there are adventurers—that is, the player characters—ready to discover what happened to him, which means that all of a sudden, the village of Bitterweed Burrow has all three! Being at the door to Nebin Pendlebrook’s pantry marks the beginning of the adventure for the player characters, or rather haberdashers, potato farmers, locksmiths, pig herders, indentured servants, glovemakers, smugglers and more, one which will see them encounter strange hybrid creatures and the undead, magic—big and small, and danger and mysteries…

Like most ‘character funnels’, the labyrinth below Nebin Pendlebrook’s pantry consists of a limited number of rooms and encounters—in this case twelve—organised in a fairly straightforward fashion. This fashion is not quite linear as there are a couple of deviations, but on the whole, the layout of the labyrinth is unfussy and uncomplicated. The same cannot be said of each individual room. Each of these is highly detailed, with lots of features to examine and explore, not always immediately, but for the curious and the careful, there plenty of things to find and plunder. Of course, some of this exploration involves some nasty encounters—if only for Zero Level characters—and some quite deadly encounters, including monsters and traps. These will whittle down the number of player characters, ready for the first of two confrontations in the dungeon. There is one which solves the mystery that triggers the adventure and one that solves the mystery that becomes apparent as the dungeon is explored.

Nebin Pendlebrook’s Perilous Pantry can be played in a number of different ways. It could of course be played by a standard party of First Level characters, but the Dungeon Master might want to add a monster or two to each encounter because as written they do not represent too much of a challenge. Alternatively, it can be run as a ‘Character Funnel’ in one of two ways. The first is as an ‘Instant Action Adventure’, one that can be run in a single four hour session, including character creation, making it suitable for play at a convention or a demonstration game in a hobby store. The second is as standard scenario, allowing the players to take a bit of time creating their characters and establishing themselves in the Bitterweed Barrow and their relationships with each other, checking for rumours, buying equipment, and so on. Then it is off into the depths of the missing Halfling’s pantry…

There is actually quite a lot of background to the dungeon. This is included to help the Dungeon Master develop the events of the dungeon beyond its labyrinthine tunnels. This is in addition to the helpful advice for the Dungeon Master on running each of the various encounters and the staging advice at the end of the scenario. Further help comes in the form of an appendix, a PDF document containing paper miniatures, battle maps, initiative cards, images, and handouts to use when running the adventure. These are all useful tools to add to the adventure.

One excellent feature in Nebin Pendlebrook’s Perilous Pantry is the inclusion of the means to cast spells or turn undead. Of course, the characters in the scenario being all Zero Levels means that they do not have access to the spellcasting or other abilities of First Level characters, but their inclusion means that the players and their characters—as well as the Referee—get to preview how each works and what their effects are in the game. Perhaps their use might dictate what their choice of actual Class and career will be at the end of the adventure. It also means that the players and their characters who have access to these abilities—and it should be made clear that these abilities have very limited use—have genuine moments in the scenario where they can be shine and be awesome by using those abilities. This is fine, but what it also means that the players and their characters without access to these abilities will lack such moments to shine. Perhaps it might have been interesting to have included other means of showcasing the abilities available to First Level characters of other Classes, but this may be over-egging the concept.

Nebin Pendlebrook’s Perilous Pantry comes as either a forty-two page, 31.19 Mb PDF or a forty-two page, digest-sized book. In the either form, they are done in greyscale, the artwork is decent, and the writing good. It needs a slight edit here and there, but the main issue with the PDF is that it is difficult trying to print it out. Perhaps a printable version could be made available?

If you looking to try Dungeon Crawl Classics, then Nebin Pendlebrook’s Perilous Pantry is a good choice. It is challenging enough to present the possibility of a TPK—Total Party Kill—but with careful play and a bit of luck, some survivors can make it out again to not only report on the fate of Nebin Pendlebrook, but also claim enough Experience Points to acquire First Level. The dungeon is also simple enough and self-contained enough that the Dungeon Master need not use the full Dungeon Crawl Classics rules, but merely those presented in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Quick Start Rules & Intro Adventure, which can be downloaded from the Goodman Games website. Entertaining and engaging, Nebin Pendlebrook’s Perilous Pantry is a delightful ‘character funnel’, whether run as a one-shot or as the start of a campaign.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Frozen Fears

Cold Warning: A chilling 7th Edition scenario by Scott David Aniolowski is the first single scenario published by Golden Goblin Press, a publisher best known for anthologies such as Tales of the Crescent City: Adventures in Jazz Era New Orleans and Tales of the Caribbean. Released following a short, but successful Kickstarter campaign, the scenario is designed for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and is set in its classic period of the Jazz Age, though it can easily to be adjusted to take place in the Mauve Decade of Cthulhu by Gaslight or the contemporary period of the here and now. Equally, it could easily be moved to another country with ease as all it really needs is for it to be winter somewhere where there is a hunting lodge. Despite Golden Goblin Press publishing the scenario for the first time, Cold Warning comes with a little history. It is penned by Scott David Aniolowski who has been writing Call of Cthulhu scenarios for some thirty years, starting with ‘Temple of the Moon’, co-authored written with Mike Szymanski, in Terror From the Stars and more recently having contributed to both New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley and More Adventures in Arkham Country from the late, lamented Miskatonic River Press. Cold Warning was written twenty-five years ago in the early 1990s and was originally intended to be included in the never published supplement from Chaosium, Inc., Amerikan Gothik. In the 2000s, there was the possibility that it would be published by Miskatonic River Press, but Golden Goblin Press has inherited it and following a rewrite by the author, has finally brought it to print.

Opening in Arkham in February, 1927, at the start of Cold Warning the investigators are hired to find Marilyn Sutton, the pregnant widow of the late Joseph Sutton. His alienist, Doctor Trenton Harrod, believes there to be something more to Joseph Sutton’s unexpected suicide and wants the matter better investigated than that conducted by the Arkham Police Department. Alternatively, Marilyn’s family are concerned for her well-being given her recent loss and her pregnant state and hire the investigators to find her, or her physician, Doctor Ephraim Sprague, is concerned about some of the symptoms of her pregnancy and hire the investigators to find her. Although these two alternatives are given in the scenario—and the second of these lends itself to the possibility that investigators might be staff from Miskatonic University medical school, the default set-up in Cold Warning has the investigators hired by Doctor Harrod to find Marilyn Sutton and is written to that end. That said, the scenario is straightforward enough that it is easy for the Keeper to adjust its opening scenes to fit whatever introduction he wants to use.

The investigators should quickly learn that Marilyn Sutton is staying with her brother-in-law, Stuart Sutton, at the family’s hunting lodge located in the woods north of Bangor in Maine. Fortunately, it being the midst of midwinter, the investigators will be pleased to find that the lodge hires rooms and has rooms, especially given that the increasingly wintery weather is drawing in as they arrive. The meat of the scenario takes place here, with the investigators exploring their surroundings—both the woods and the nearby separate, but forbidden guest cabin—and interacting with the few NPCs already staying at the lodge. These NPCs are nicely drawn and although some do veer very close to being clichés, they are quick and easy for the Keeper to roleplay. There are some nicely drawn connections between some of the NPCs too—if the investigators go looking for them that is.

Barely a day will pass before events in and around the lodge begin to escalate in their weirdness and their ferocity and any group of players who are used to the sedate pace of many another investigative scenario is likely be shocked and quickly overwhelmed by said turn of events. More experienced players will quickly throw themselves into ferreting out what information they can in the increasingly isolated location. If this requires any one skill it is that of Stealth, but outdoors skills will also be useful if the investigators want to explore the area around the lodge. The Keeper is provided with a number of events to seed around the investigators’ movements and examinations, but Cold Warning comes to its finale with no little rapidity. There is a certain sense of operatic grandeur to this finale, set against the elements and an almost incomprehensible personification of the cold.

At just thirty-two pages, Cold Warning is a short scenario, playable in a session or two, or even as a one shot. Given that length, there is a surprising lack of complexity to its plot, but this does not mean that it is without detail or sophistication. It may look straightforward enough, but under the hood there are elements and aspects that add pleasing hooks and twists to the scenario’s plot that is nicely enveloped in cold’s sharp embrace. Certainly there is more to some of the scenario’s NPCs than meets the eye and the Keeper should have fun portraying any one of them. The scenario will also make for a bracingly cold change of tone for the players as it takes place at a hunting lodge. If they decide that their investigators are not coming armed quite literally for bear, they really are missing the point.

Of course, so far nothing has been said as to the nature of the threat faced in Cold Warning by the investigators. Given that it does take place in winter in the relatively far north and it does involve a Great Old One and his minions, veteran Keepers and players alike should quickly realise what exactly they are facing. Especially given that the Great Old One appears on the cover.

There are some minor weaknesses to Cold Warning. One is that the introduction is slightly underwhelming with regard to exactly what Doctor Trenton Harrod wants. The other is that the map of the area around the hunting lodge needs more detail, in particular the location of the guest cabin and other nearby sites in the woods. That said, physically, Cold Warning is a well presented and well written book with some good handouts. Bar the area map of around the lodge, Stephanie McAlea’s maps are as good you would expect. Reuben Dodd’s illustrations though are very good. In previous volumes for Golden Goblin Press, some of his artwork has had a cartoon-like quality, but only one or two pieces suffer from that in Cold Warning. The standout pieces include the cover depicting worried investigators outside the lodge, a death scene inside, the shot of the NPCs, and the moment of the villain’s triumph. Given how good these illustrations are, Reuben Dodd would be perfect for illustrating a second edition of Beyond the Mountains of Madness

Whether as a chilling one-shot or a cold and bleak confrontation as part of an ongoing capture, Cold Warning manages to pack a lot into its few pages. A good, (frozen) solid scenario, Cold Warning: A chilling 7th Edition scenario is worth the author and the publisher having pulled it out of the deep freeze.