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Black Leaf

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Lion & Dragon (a brief review)

Some initial thoughts.

In general, the writing's not bad. I wouldn't say Pundit is the flashiest of writers, but it's solid enough. And seems to have actually been proofread which is rarer than in should be with modern rpgs.

The presentation is excellent. Well laid out with a logical order. And the use of period artwork is really evocative. Bonus points for actual proper bookmarks. An index would have been helpful but it's put together well enough that the lack of one isn't that vital. (A bibliography would have been even better but a lot of rpg authors seem strangely averse to that concept).

I've not seen them in play but the mechanics seem decent. Based on OD&D but with their own twists. The new (non Vancian) magic system looks like a lot of fun. The herb list is also good. (Obviously influenced by Maelstrom but that's standard for herb lists in RPGs.)

The claim to being "medieval-authentic" is less convincing. I won't go through picking up every historical error (villains were cottars, not townsfolk), but I will say that you can't legitimately claim to be the only true medieval fantasy game, based entirely on what people at the time believed and then put Moorcockian alignment at the centre of your game. I'd say it's about as historical as Dragon Warriors. It certainly mines actual folklore for ideas but it uses it in a fictionalised and fantastical way. This sours the game somewhat for me. Normally, lack of historical accuracy doesn't bother me. But if you're going to make sweeping statements like "Lion & Dragon will have you discovering real medieval fantasy for the very first time" damn right I expect academic textbook levels of research from your game. (Especially as, while the system is awful, Fantasy Wargaming did the whole "medieval fantasy RPG based on real beliefs from the time" thing far more accurately back in 1981).

This doesn't detract from the fact it's a good game.

Who should pick this up:

Definitely: Anybody who likes/runs Dark Albion. I don't own Dark Albion myself but from what I can tell this is a no brainer if you want something to go with that.

Probably: If you fancy an OSR version of WFRP. I haven't gone into detail but the game is heavily influenced by WFRP from chaos cults to skaven ratmen. If you like the WFRP setting but prefer a D&D based system this is an excellent option.

Possibly: If you want a game that is in pundit;s words "20th century fantasy with a slight medieval veneer" but does things a bit differently. It's a bit more medieval themed than your average Tolkein influenced high fantasy and a lot darker and grittier than your standard dungeon crawl. I'd have to get Dark Albion to know from sure but what I've picked up from L&D is that it's a good low fantasy OSR setting.

Avoid: If you want a historical game, even one with magic and mythology. Pick up Malestrom: Domesday instead.
 

Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Grimmgard



Introduction

The name's Davenport. I review games.

So the other day my buddy Scotty the Dwarf came by for a visit to my office. Thing is, he ditched his usual grimy armor and battle axe for some really fancy new duds and one serious hand cannon. What gives, I wanted to know?

"Laddie, today I'm here to talk to ye about Grimmgard," he says. "In Grimmgard, I'm one of the Dwarven. We're the sophisticated, amiable types. Got damned fine technology, too."

"So you aren't the short-tempered ones?" I says.

"Don't start, laddie..." he says.

"Well, if you're the sophisticated fellas, where does that leave the Elves?" I says.

"No Elves," he says. "But there are Ogres, and Beastfolk, and these wee mushroom gnomes, and a lot more besides. And they have all sorts o' technology, from airships and trains to plasma rifles and teleporters."

"Sounds good," I says. "I'll get to it shortly."

"I'm warnin' ye, laddie..."

Substance

Setting

Grimmgard presents a fantasy world with some odd twists and turns, largely in terms of technology. Where most of the world sits at a Medieval tech level, various species possess wonders like steam power, airships, trains, battle armor, massive force fields, anti-gravity craft, telepathy devices, and even nuclear fission. The book doesn't do a very convincing job of explaining what keeps the more advanced species from running roughshod over their less advanced brethren, but the gonzo mix definitely appeals to me. (Curiously, while there are man-portable cannons and flame throwers, nobody has come up with basic firearms.)

Unlike many fantasy settings, Grimmgard offers three distinct ages in which to set your campaigns. In the first, the Annihilation Age, the forces of Chaos rise in an attempt to destroy the Order-spawned world. In the second, the Winter Age, a magical ice age covers the land while the wicked sorcerous Ever-King conquers the Human kingdoms. In the third, the Garden Age, the land faces invasion by the advanced Tyreans from across the sea.

The game features a number of races to play:

  • Humans: Noteworthy because they aren't a "baseline" race, the Humans have their own strengths and weaknesses in terms of attributes. Humans may come from five very different cultures. Most sorcerers are Human, as are all alchemists.
  • Dwarven: Like the typical fantasy dwarves, the Dwarven are short, stocky, and good with machines. The similarities end there, as the Dwarven are a sophisticated lot, more charismatic than they are physically tough.
  • Cloven: Inquisitive, endlessly optimistic, and quite adorable little mushroom gnomes.
  • Beastmen: Anthropomorphic animal people of numerous sorts. The game includes several example species and a do-it-yourself system for making almost any sort of Beastman you can imagine.
  • Wolfkin: Actually a variety of Beastmen, the Wolfkin warrant special mention due to their dominance of the wilds and their use of Thundertech, allowing them to throw lightning bolts and teleport.
  • Mazigorns: Red-skinned, horned, and fanged, these bloodthirsty creatures glorify bloodshed and thrive on the flesh of those motivated by hatred. Not an easy race to play as a "good guy".
  • Ogres: Unlike the other Grimmgard races, these guys are pretty much what you'd expect: big, dumb, strong brutes.
  • Scarrlok: Comical and savage but industrious amphibious goblinoid creatures, they go from being mostly slaves to the terrors of the seas in submersible ships.
In addition, the game offers details on Greater Races as options for those wanting to play a higher-powered campaign:

  • Angelics: Basically angels created as emissaries of Order, unusual in that their powers rely on super-technology.
  • Phoenixes: Not really a separate race so much as a group of extraordinary powerful individuals of many races who are periodically reborn in a fiery conflagration.
  • Merulans: Massive, horrifying, tentacled Mermen who jealously guard the oceans and their attractive, flirtatious Mermaid brides.
  • Cetuns: Human/Merulan crossbreeds, cursed with a thirst for the blood of their terrestrial kin.
  • Tyreans: Purple pointy-eared tyrannical humanoids from across the sea possessing advanced technology in the form of anti-gravity, fission reactors, and telepathic mind-control devices. They only really make sense as spies in the Garden Age, and well-disguised spies at that.
Grimmgard includes a detailed travelogue of the world and the ways to get around it, including airships, mounts (both terrestrial and winged), and the massive Dwarven train. This section includes stats for various encounters possible, both in specific regions and anywhere on land, sea, or air.

The game also features a whole chapter dedicated to Chaos, with some sample creatures and a monster generator for creating more -- a welcome addition.

System

Grimmgard uses GrimmgardD6 (a.k.a. GD6), based on the D6 System originally seen in the Star Wars RPG from West End Games -- basically, an attribute + skill system based on additive d6 dice pools. (You can read my review of that game here.) GD6 introduces a few twists, however.

The attributes are Dexterity, Strength, Knowledge, Charisma, Cunning, and Craft, each with their own list of fairly broad associated skills. For perspective, melee combat is divided into Heavy Weapons (two-handed) and Light Weapons (one-handed). As I tend to favor generalized skills, this is a plus in my book.

At the beginning of every adventure, characters start with 1d6 Luck points. These may be spent to:

  • Re-roll any number of dice.
  • May a "lucky shot" rather than rolling for a hit location.
  • Make a declaration about the current situation to give the PC an advantage.
  • Discover a weapon if caught unarmed.
I'm always in favor of this sort of mechanic, so this goes in the "plus" column as well.

In "standard" D6, one die is the "Wild Die" and open-ends. In Grimmgard, this is replaced with the Luck Die. If the Luck Die comes up six, the player rolls again. If it comes up six again, the character gains a Luck point. If the Luck Die comes up one, the player rolls again. If the Luck Die comes up one again, the character loses a Luck point.

I like this idea conceptually, as it makes expressions of good luck something that the player makes happen rather than the random outcome of the Wild Die in other D6-based games. On the other hand, it looks like a lot of extra dice-rolling to produce the desired effect.

Characters also have a rating called Heart, reflecting their morality. An act of profound goodness adds 1 Heart, while an act of great evil subtracts 1 Heart. For every +/-10 Heart, the character gains Feat Point worth an additional D6 for every 10 Heart on a single skill roll (i.e., a Feat Point earned at +30 or -30 Heart would be worth 3D6). I appreciate the way this makes morality matter tangibly in the game.

Character Creation

A bit confusingly, Grimmgard refers to selecting a "class" as part of character creation. In truth, these are more akin to templates for character types common to the setting, suggesting the two primary attributes and three primary skills for these sorts of characters.

Race determines the number of extra dice that may be applied to attributes. Humans, for example, get 10D6 attribute dice. Players then assign 8D6 to divide among their characters' skills. Easy enough.

Combat

One of the most noteworthy distinctions between GD6 and the standard D6 system is the Battle Throw. This is an initiative roll based on the combatant's combined Dexterity and Strength. Between two combatants, the one with the higher Battle Throw each round is the only one who gets to attack.

I get what the author was going for here, but I think some method of reflecting momentum during combat would have been preferable. As it is, this makes very large, strong creatures almost unassailable, even by ranged attacks. I think I'd discard this mechanic for a more conventional means of determining initiative.

Damage is rated in terms of Injury level and Pain level. Injury and Pain levels rise together, and Pain level is what other games might call the wound penalty to actions; however, at the end of each round of combat, characters get to make a Grit skill roll to "shrug off" some or all of their current Pain level. Therefore, Injury and Pain are tracked separately. Once again, I'd rather not have the extra dice rolling involved here, but I do like the concept.

I also like the concept of Horror damage that the game includes. The GM pits a creature's Horror dice against the target character's Willpower skill. If the Horror roll wins, the target suffers a random Horror Effect -- minor if the Horror won by 0-9, major if it won by more.

The section includes relatively simple rules for warfare, featuring stats for various units of troops as well as for siege engines and warships of the sea and air.

Equipment

Equipment warrants a special mention in this game. Rather that a simple list of products for sale, Grimmgard includes the requirements for crafting the items, the difficulties of crafting items of four levels of quality, and the stats for an item at each level. It's an interesting approach that I haven't seen before.

The section includes information on Magecraft, the ability to brew magic potions, with 15 example potions given. This is a big deal, as Magecraft is one of the main advantages Humans possess over other races.

True Sorcery

"True Sorcery" is the game's term for spellcasting. To access it, a player must sacrifice one of the character's Attribute Dice and must spend double the Skill Point cost to improve their chosen Art, of which there are eight:

  • Elemental Sorcery: The power to manipulate a single element beyond just the four usual suspects of air, earth, fire, and water. Other substances such as wood and iron are also possibilities.
  • Chaos Sorcery: A corrupting, destructive power based on all manner of negative emotions.
  • Divine Sorcery: The power of life.
  • Elder Sorcery: The power of Order.
  • Macabre Sorcery: The power of decay and death.
  • Mazigoric Sorcery: The power of fear, anger, and hate.
  • Odic Sorcery: The power of the heavens.
  • Feeric Sorcery: The power of luck and good fortune.
Sorcerers can learn only two Arts -- three, if one of them is Chaos Sorcery.

The spells under each Art are known as "enchantments," and each Art has several of them. The number varies quite a bit: Chaos Sorcery has seven, for example, while Elemental Sorcery has only two. In addition, some (but not all) Arts offer a "Valdechant" (master enchantment) to Sorcerers who attain 7D in the relevant Art.

(As a nice touch, each enchantment includes the magic words required to cast it.)

All of this adds up to sorcerers who are fairly limited in the scope of their powers. Whether that's a good thing depends upon your tastes, I suppose. I should point out one oddity: Some enchantments don't require a roll at all, meaning that the sorcerer's level in the associated Art is irrelevant.

Style

The book could use better organization. Stats for creating characters of the various races are found at the far end of the book from the character creation rules, for example. Stats for creatures are scattered here and there throughout the travelogue. And equipment is divided between the actual equipment section and the sections for equipment specific to individual races. So, if you want stats for an owl, you'll have to know that they're native to the Northern Woods. The lack of an index doesn't help matters, although the table of contents is fairly thorough.

On the other hand, the art is very good. The images of vehicles are stunning, for example, and some of the pictures of creatures are downright creepy.

I enjoyed the writing, which makes the many details of this setting easy to follow. The good layout helps with this readability, and I noted very few typos.

Conclusion

It's an intriguing fantasy world unafraid to think outside of the box, and with a tried-and-true system. If you want a setting that's different from your standard fantasy world without being totally alien, and if you'd like to play in this world with a system that's both totally serviceable and easy to use, you could do worse than giving Grimmgard a try.
 
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EOTB

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Review of Zjelwyin Fall - an OSRIC/AD&D adventure by Anthony Huso

A lich’s sanctuary tumbles through astral space, proof from anyone powerful enough to pose a threat. For reasons unique to the DMs campaign, the PCs are enlisted to travel the astral and penetrate its interior.

Did I mention it’s for levels 2-3?

Low level adventures suffer from the funnel effect. Not the death funnel, but the possibilities funnel: the ratio of the game system a DM can bring to bear in an adventure is necessarily reduced for low-level characters, for their practical preservation; increasing again as levels come.

Many DMs favor tried-and-true foes at low level - pass the humanoid gauntlet to level 5, with some splashes of color here and there. This adventure takes the opposite tack - contriving a narrow reason requiring adventurers of meager levels to ply the exotic playgrounds of the mighty and powerful.

B2 is remembered for teaching many DMs how to run the game with its structure and advice. In addition to the scenario at hand, this module takes a similar wide view towards teaching what is presumed a DM without much experience running planar adventure; removing the mystery from their eyes while advising how to maintain it in the eye of the player.

It does all of these very well indeed. If the party makes it back (and even if they don’t), I guarantee the players will remark on this adventure long after it is finished. The orc holes from before and the lizard men swamps after ever contrasting with this trip to the light fantastic. Anthony’s module is vivid and compelling; even the journey through the astral looking for the entrance is composed of encounters a DM will look forward to running; demons and devas, monks and anti-paladins. Once the final location is reached, reward only falls to groups negotiating all of tactical, social, and mental challenges with aplomb in 3-d environments.

Did I mention that Russ Nicholson contributed some art?

One aspect of Anthony’s writing I really appreciate as a DM, is the understanding that low-level play is littered with save-or-die, and yet most DMs employ mundane deliveries of a mechanic which is already scaled to the ultimate price: dead is dead. Would you rather your character have died from a centipede bite, or by an inky black sword wielded by an anti-paladin cutting your silver cord?

Which is the stuff of whoa?

The lich’s home is a series of seven chambers linked by magical sands of time. In addition to each room being its own challenge, different objects, or how well PCs solve various puzzles and obtain info, will open up different chambers. It’s likely there will be some loops back and forth among the chambers before players deduce the end-path. The rooms are dense with information to uncover, so I expect these loops to result in further discovery as opposed to mere annoyances.

But PCs who think decisively and quickly in the final room may escape with both their lives and such riches as to fund any new group objective they could imagine. Or they could die.

There are four new spells for use on the astral plane, and an equal number of new magic items. These are very well done, and worthy additions into a DM’s campaign world. I especially liked the spells Incubus Fire and Hag Ride; the soul resonance weapons and potion of rapturous visions are magic items likely to enter regular use outside of the module proper.

The new monsters are likewise itching to be ran; nightmares from Somewhere Else. I especially like how the Cniopuhr is equally fearsome to the paladin lord and the prestidigitator.

Other high points:

The pudding oracle is memorable non-combat
The useful formatting of monster stats for encounters
The art is evocative. It isn’t art-heavy, but every piece works.
The interaction between the guardians’ attack form, and the time PCs have in the final location

One part that didn’t click with me:

The 5th area: it seems to me the PCs end up on a balcony immediately, and I don’t see any reason why they would leave it from that point, which seems to negate many of the room’s hazards.

Of the hazards mentioned, they are largely environmental and long-developing, but it would seem the room would destroy this environment every time it operated. I feel like I’m missing something, here.

FINAL VERDICT

Buy it, the value is undeniable and entertainment factor high. It might change your perspective on what’s possible for low-level parties.

Link to blog/point of sale below. (edited to change "POS to "point of sale", to avoid confusion)


 
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Edgewise

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On my barely-maintained blog, I wrote a review of Patrick Stuart's most recent creation, Silent Titans. tl;dr beautiful, stylish and highly-playable campaign setting for Into the Odd, but paradoxically, the usability is very compromised in isolated elements.


Review of Silent Titans

To put it in perspective, this is a 112-page work, and I've probably read about 2/3 of that text. Plus or minus. I've done a lot of skimming on all of the regions of Wir-Heal itself, but paid close attention to the rules, the framing, the settlements and the usability of the document. I haven't even touched Stuart's interview of Into the Odd's (DriveThruRPG) creator, Chris MacDowell. That's supplemental information, though, so it's not strictly necessary to have an opinion about the bulk of the work.

In the spirit of the text itself, I'm going to present my thoughts in bulleted lists.
Map of the entire setting

What it is

  • A tabletop RPG campaign setting with lightweight built-in rules. It was written by Patrick Stuart and illustrated by Dirk Detweiler Leichty.
  • Essentially five surreal pointcrawl regions (i.e. dungeons) with slightly less weird surrounding settlements. Keep on the Fucked-Up Borderlands.
  • The setting is a nexus of time and reality itself, with an emphasis on England in our world.
  • PCs arrive together from different times, confused about how they got there.
  • The land is cursed and chaotic, so they will want to leave, but it is not clear how to do so.
  • Built-in rules are a stripped-down iteration of Into the Odd.

This guy welcomes you to your new life


Things I like

  • Fast and idiosyncratic character generation is a variation of ItO's mechanics.
  • You can jump right into the disorienting introductory encounter.
  • The art of Dirk Detweiler Leichty is spectacular. It's also integral to the mood, and it complements the text very well.
  • Lots of solid advice for GMing to keep you grounded.
  • Open-ended campaign setting.
  • Scads of plot hooks, especially in surrounding settlements.
  • Heaps and piles of vivid and dreamlike imagery, with plenty of colorful characters.
  • Loads of humor and abundant dark elements. Both were used tastefully, at least in accordance with my fairly loose standards.
  • All that colorful content is ultimately focused on playability.
  • Lots of useful tables for generating content, laid-out nicely.

Check out these guys


Things I don't like

  • Many of the maps sacrifice usability for artistry to an extreme degree. It was often maddening for me.
  • The bulleted style of the location descriptions doesn't mesh with the verbosity of the writing. This works a lot better for very terse descriptions. Bullet after bullet of lush hypnagogic imagery is another thing.
  • It's also hard to discern hierarchies because indentation is reduced and some bullets are hard to see. This was to spare whitespace and the page count, but bullets were always going to be very wasteful of space.
  • The unrelenting surrealism could benefit from some occasional relenting; consider the role of the straight man.
  • Most of the NPCs are very colorful, but I haven't spotted any who were actually likable. I find that it only takes a couple of likable NPCs to dramatically increase player engagement with the setting itself.

Very pretty, but this is a map?

In summary

Silent Titans is a fascinating work that sometimes sacrifices usability for high concept. It's beautiful but cold, highly playable but, at times, frustratingly obtuse. I like it overall, and there are parts that I love.
 

Edgewise

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The art is really some of the best I've seen in an RPG. Maybe the best, but that's subjective, of course. If it didn't occasionally interfere with readability, I would have lauded it more highly. And like I say, I can see it leading to a fun campaign; certain a lot more whimsical than Veins of the Earth.

I went with the physical copy in the KS because I didn't want to miss out like I did on the first run of Blue Medusa, and Silent Titans looked like it would be just as good. I really wish Stuart hadn't gone HAM on bullet points, though. I took a screenshot of one page so folks can see whether or not it would bother them.

8534

Here's a map:

8535
I hope it's not inappropriate from an IP standpoint to reproduce these (I'll remove if anyone thinks so). Anyway, these screenshots should give you an idea of whether you have as much difficulty as I did with the usability of these. As you can see, the map is a gorgeous work of art, but I have a hard time figuring out how to navigate from location to location without reading the extended room descriptions (not pictured).
 

Baulderstone

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I hope it's not inappropriate from an IP standpoint to reproduce these (I'll remove if anyone thinks so).om descriptions (not pictured).
I think a couple of sample pages is probably fine. It's not like anyone is going to be able to run the adventure from these. However, if Patrick is bothered by it, we can take them down.

The first page does illustrate your point. I generally like bullet points in an adventure, but the three layers of nesting bullet points make it a little more difficult to parse. It's not such a big deal that it is going to put me off buying it though.

As I contrast, I really like the use of bullet points in Gavin Norman's newest adventure, Winter's Daughter.
8539
Partly it is the single layer of bullet points mixes with clear headers. It's also a digest sized page, so the it isn't quite as overwhelming. Over the years, I have come to the opinion that digest sizes work much better for any RPG book that you need to scan quickly at a table. There is a little more leading between each bullet point too, giving them more clarity.

I'm actually fine with the second page you showed. It's much easier to take those blocks of bullet points when they are scattered over the page.
 

Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe reviews: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e


Introduction

The name’s Davenport. I review games.

So the other day, my good buddy Scotty the Dwarf stops by for a visit. He shows up bare-chested and with a giant orange mohawk, which meant only one thing: There was a new edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay in town.

“Y’know, Scotty,” I says, leaning back in my chair, “I’ve always had me a soft spot for WFRP. Great dark fantasy setting. But those rules in the first two editions just never did it for me. And that thirdedition went way off the rails.”

“Well, yer in luck, laddie,” he says. “I happen t’know that the fourth edition of WFRP cleans up all the nonsense and gets right down to the Troll-slaying goodness.”

“Speaking of Troll Slayers,” I says, “the look suits you. I’ll bet you really lay your enemies low.”

“Ye’d best be glad I’m not a Smartass Slayer, laddie…”


Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Rulebook + PDF



Substance

Introduction

Here the text introduces the concept of tabletop roleplaying games, explains how to use the book, and goes over the text conventions found in the book.

Much more interesting is the tour of the Resplendent Empire of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Karl-Franz I, roughly equivalent to a polytheistic Holy Roman Empire at the height of the Renaissance. This takes the form of the idyllic “party line” on various topics — the peasants, the rivers, the cities, the inns, and what have you — followed in each case by a more cynical viewpoint. Taken as a whole, it paints a picture of a picturesque country with a dirty and dangerous underbelly.

Further aiding in this description is a letter to a previously exiled noble from a guardian (and witch) assigned by his father, summoning him back to the Reikland, the province at the heart of the Empire, and dispelling whatever false notions he might have of the place.

Character

WFRP introduces one of the most innovative character creation systems I have seen. Rather than going 100% random or point-based, the game presents a delightful hybrid. At every major step of the way, players are given the choice of either directly choosing an option or letting a roll of the dice make the call. There’s no penalty for the former, but there’s a bonus in Experience Points each time the player goes with the latter.

Species

WFRP
offers four species to play:

  • Humans (Reiklander): Humans in the Reikland tend to be more open and friendly than other folk but are often seen as arrogant and meddlesome by outsiders.
  • Dwarfs: The stiff-necked, honor- and muscle-bound, gold-obsessed fellows you’d expect, with the caveat that many of those living in the Reikland are the descendants of those driven from the mountains in years past.
  • Halflings: Cheerful, chubby, pipeweed-smoking diminutive folks, the Halflings of WFRP have much more in common with the classic Hobbit-style Halfling than they do with the revisionist Romany-like Halfings of the newer editions of D&D.
  • High Elves: Aloof, passionate, and sophisticated, they follow the archetype of the “civilized” Elf pretty closely.
  • Wood Elves: So reclusive in the Reikland that most folks don’t even believe any live there, these are your stereotypical “tree-hugging” Elves.
As a side note here, the animosity that the Dwarfs bear for the Elves is strictly optional in this edition, allowing them to work together in the same party.

Species selection provides a list of Skills and Talents that help make each species “feel” right. For example, Dwarves are all sturdy, Halflings are resistant to Chaos, and Elves of both sorts have acute vision.

Class and Career

The game is class-based, but not in the same manner as, say, D&D. Class determines the character’s general place in society:

  • Academics
  • Burghers (townsfolk)
  • Courtiers
  • Peasants
  • Rangers
  • Riverfolk
  • Rogues
  • Warriors
Under each class is a set of careers that PCs can follow. For example, the Academic careers are:

  • Apothecary
  • Engineer
  • Lawyer
  • Nun
  • Physician
  • Priest
  • Scholar
  • Wizard
Attributes

In this game, Characteristics receive percentage ratings, with the tens digit treated as the Characteristic Bonus that is used for various purposes; e.g., the Strength Bonus adds to melee damage.

Again, by default, you roll for your scores. (For humans, this means 2d10+20 across the board.) If you go totally random, you get a big XP bonus; a lesser bonus if you shuffle the rolled scores around; and no bonus if you simply assign 100 points to the 10 Characteristics:

  • Weapon Skill
  • Ballistic Skill
  • Strength
  • Toughness
  • Initiative
  • Agility
  • Dexterity
  • Intelligence
  • Willpower
  • Fellowship
A couple of thoughts here…

I used to dislike treating weapon skills as characteristics, but I’ve since come around. This design keeps Agility or Dexterity from being “god stats” and avoids the silliness of Strength being used to hit (as opposed to determining damage).

And speaking of “god stats”, I appreciate the fact that the game splits Agility and Dexterity. Splitting out Initiative from both seems a bit much, but I’m okay with that.

Now, Elves get the lion’s share of bonuses, which may seem unfair, but Elves take a hit when it comes to the next bits: Fate and Resilience. The former represents the maximum level of Fortune (luck points), and the latter represents the maximum level of Resolve (get-out-of-trouble points). Elves get just a couple of points to to spend on these, a nice way to represent their status as a fading people.

In another nifty application of the rules, players must choose a Motivation for their characters. Appropriately enough, acting according to this Motivation lets characters regain Resolve.

Class and Careers

Each Career has four levels. For example, the Scholar Career has the following levels:
  • Student
  • Scholar
  • Fellow
  • Professor
Each level, in turn, offers a selection of Characteristic advances, Skills, Talents, and Trappings, and mandates the character’s status in society.

A character can only increase the Characteristics available at his current level and can buy his way into a new level once all advances in the current level have been taken. However, the game is amazingly flexible for one based on classes. For the right amount of XP, the character can change Careers within or outside of his current Class, and with sufficient in-game explanation, can even skip Career levels.

The flexibility doesn’t end there, however. Characters are even able to stay at their current Career level in perpetuity if they prefer, continuing to increase the Characteristics and Skills available for improvement at that level.

And longtime WFRP fans will be happy to know that the Rat Catcher still has a Small but Vicious Dog.

Skills and Talents

Each skill is based on a Characteristic. Some are Basic, meaning that anyone can attempt using them with the relevant Characteristic, while others are Advanced, meaning that they can only be attempted if the character has taken advances in them. Overall, I agree with the way the rules categorize them in this regard, although I wonder if it makes sense that Ranged (as in ranged combat) is Advanced. Having trained in archery, I readily concede that it’s a skill that requires training to use, but anyone can point and shoot a firearm. That’s one of the reasons they became prevalent.

I would say that the skills are relatively specific — Consume Alcohol and Row come to mind. The prevalence of Basic skills makes this far less onerous than it might be.

Talents, by contrast, are special abilities that might be called “perks” or “advantages” in other systems. These include the ability to use magic as well as various martial tricks like dual-wielding weapons.

Rules

WFRP 4e uses a simple percentile roll-under system with some clever twists.

First of all, it’s worth noting that the game fixes the problem of its fairly low Characteristic and Skill levels by using a difficulty level system that sets average difficulty at +20%. That’s a welcome change, as my experience with WFRP 1e includes some unpleasant memories of an extreme “whiff” factor.

The system also uses a success level system (when degree of success matters, obviously). By default, the success level is the tens digit of the Skill or Characteristic (plus any difficulty modifiers) minus the tens digit of the dice roll. Simple enough, although for my math-addled mind, even that little bit of arithmetic makes me stop and think a bit. Thankfully, the game suggests simply taking the tens digit of a successful roll as the success level, which is much more transparent and, consequently, much more my speed.

Speaking of success levels, the game blows the top of what used to be a universal Skill/Characteristic cap of 100% by adding an extra success level for every 10% above 100% that a score goes. Since I can’t abide universal caps, this is a very welcome change for me.

The system also includes a dead-simple method for determining critical successes and fumbles without any math at all: doubles (11, 22, 33, etc.). Simply put, doubles that are successes are Criticals, and doubles that are a failure are Fumbles.

(continued...)
 
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Dan Davenport

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Combat

Combat is relatively simple but quite deadly.

Fights take place in Initiative order, with each combatant getting a move and an action each round. Melee combat is an opposed roll; ranged combat is not.

One important aspect of WFRP 4e combat is Advantage. Combatants gain a point of Advantage whenever they win an opposed test in combat or otherwise improve their situation in some way. Each point of Advantage, in turn, adds +10 to any relevant combat or Psychology test, and Advantage continues to accrue until combatants lose an opposed test or take a Wound or a Condition (such as bleeding), at which point they lose it all. This means that dominant fighters grow exponentially more dangerous while the fight’s going their way but that the tide can turn at any time. Great stuff.

The system includes hit locations, which doesn’t thrill me, but this is simply to determine whether armor covers the location in question. Damage isn’t tracked per location, which is a good thing in my book.

Speaking of damage, it’s determined by adding the success level of the attack — something I always appreciate, as it rewards skillful attacks. Armor (along with Toughness) reduces damage, another plus to me.

Damage is rated in Wounds, which are basically hit points. Lose all your Wounds, and you start taking Critical Wounds. This is when things start getting serious — anything from a simple scar-producing cut across the forehead to instant decapitation in the case of a head wound, for example, depending upon a d100 roll against the relevant Critical Wound table. This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds, since negative Wounds less than the Toughness Bonus mean that the d100 roll is at -20, but it’s still pretty rough. And remember what I said about Criticals earlier? Well, a Critical in combat results in an immediate Critical Wound. That’s really nasty, since even the worst fighters can get lucky now and then. This means that no fight can be taken for granted, which is ideal for a grim and perilous setting.

Fate & Resilience

Fate and Resilience form the basis of two pools of points: Fortune and Resolve, respectively. Fortune and Resolve can be spent for minor benefits, like re-rolling a failed test (Fortune) or ignoring the modifiers from Critical Wounds for a round (Resolve). These points refresh with relative ease — Fortune at the beginning of each game session, Resolve when a character acts in accordance to Motivation. However, Fate and Resilience can also be spent directly for major effects, such as avoiding death (Fate) or automatically succeeding at a task (Resilience). These points come back only in extraordinary circumstances: acts of supreme heroism (Fate) and of great importance to Motivation (Resilience).

I’m always a fan of “metagame” currencies, and I especially like the two-tier system used here. PCs can get a break, but at cost that varies with the importance of said break. And I particularly like how the game requires major character developments to replenish the more precious of these points.

Corruption

Corruption by the forces of Chaos serves a function in WFRP similar to that of Sanity (and Sanity loss) in Call of Cthulhu. Characters gain Corruption points in one of two ways: dark deals and corrupting influences.

Dark deals, as the name implies, are entered into voluntarily by the character — the PC can re-roll a failed roll even without Fortune points by accepting a point of Corruption.

Corrupting influences are external sources of Chaos, like Mutants, Daemons, and Warpstone. These call for rolls of either Endurance (for physical sources) or Cool (for spiritual sources). There are three levels of corrupting influences — minor, moderate, and major — each with increasing target numbers for success and increasing Corruption points for failure.

I like this a lot. Chaos can get you through temptation or like radiation, making it a truly insidious force.

So what does Corruption do? Well, if your amount of Corruption ever exceeds your Willpower Bonus plus your Toughness Bonus, you must pass an Endurance Test or mutate mentally or physically.

Interestingly, Halflings only physically mutate 10% of the time, Dwarfs 5% of the time, and Elves 0% of the time, while Humans physically mutate 50% of the time. I’m not sure which is creepier: the fact that Humans are so vulnerable to turning into freaks or the fact that there’s never a physical sign that an Elf has turned to the Dark Side, so to speak.

The book provides extensive lists of both physical and mental mutations — some of which actually have a positive aspect, like Inhuman Beauty or Iron Skin, but all of which will get you executed if they’re discovered for what they are. (You might as well wrap things up if you get the Inverted Face mutation.)

On the bright side, mutating removes Corruption points equal to the PC’s Willpower Bonus. The only other ways to remove Corruption points are by voluntarily allowing the GM to have your PC do something unpleasant or by the difficult path of absolution.

Again, great stuff. This provides a tempting easy but dark path to removing Corruption, juxtaposed with the hard but “right” way to go about it. Not to mention the fact that the easy way out is bound to result in delicious paranoia among the PCs.

Disease and Infection

I won’t go into the nasty details of this section, which includes such charming afflictions as Blood Rot, the Bloody Flux, and Galloping Trots. Suffice it to say that the book provides enough of details on diseases and their symptoms to make the Old World a suitably nasty place.

Psychology

And if the game is going to cover the unpleasant physical aspects of the Old World, why not cover the mental ones as well? The book does this well, addressing such issues as prejudices, hatred, and fear, but also mentioning the undeniable power of love.

Between Adventures

This game manages to make “off-screen” actions between adventures fairly interesting through the use of Events and Endeavors.

Events are rolled on 1d100 and range from adventure-spawning happenings to peace and quiet.

Endeavors are activities the PCs get up to between adventures: earning income, training, researching, or what have you. PCs get one Endeavor per week, with a maximum of three.

There are two Endeavors of particular note. The first is the fact that Elves must spend an Endeavor interacting with their own kind with no accrued benefit, serving as another balancing mechanism to offset the Elves’ inherent advantages. The second is that unless PCs engage in a banking Endeavor, they squander all of their accumulated loot from the previous adventure.

Religion and Belief

Confession time: Given that the Old World is clearly based on Renaissance Europe, the choice to make the setting polytheistic always grated on me a bit. Fortunately, the evocative manner in which this chapter describes the various pantheons and their worshipers somehow manages to make it work for me this time around.

In particular, I love the contrast between the primal Old Gods and the more cosmopolitan Classical Gods, with attention paid to the lesser provincial gods and the nonhuman pantheons as well.

Then, of course, there’s Sigmar, patron deity of the Empire, and the vile Chaos Gods.

The chapter goes into great detail regarding the cults of the major gods of the Empire, including symbols, holy books, festivals, penances, holy sites, and, of course, the worshipers themselves.

I’m quite fond of the system for Blessings and Miracles. The former are minor and imperceptible, such as +10 to a given Characteristic for six rounds; the latter are powerful and overt, such as a black fire sent by the god of death to destroy the undead. Keeping these powers in check is the chance of angering one’s god, which can go up dramatically if you’ve accumulated sins. It just feels right as a system and is quite distinct from magic.

Magic

In the world of Warhammer, magic manifests as a difficult-to-perceive wind that sweeps down from the north and separates into eight different colors of wind representing different lores:
  • White (Light)
  • Gold (Metal)
  • Jade (Life)
  • Blue (Heavens)
  • Grey (Shadows)
  • Purple (Death)
  • Red (Fire)
  • Amber (Beasts)
Humans traditionally are limited to specializing in one of these lores and learn them in the officially sanctioned Colleges of Magic, while Elves can use multiple lores. Elves can also learn to blend the Winds of Magic together for powerful effects. On the flip side, the Winds can blend in a far more sinister manner, forming Dark Magic.

Other lores exist but will get the Witch Hunters after you:
  • Hedgecraft: Folk magic dealing with spirits and nature.
  • Witchcraft: An unpleasant lore dealing with Dark Magic.
  • Daemonology: Summoning, binding, and controlling daemons, a big no-no.
  • Necromancy: Raising and controlling the dead, another big no-no.
  • Chaos Magic: Dealing directly with the Great Powers of Chaos, the biggest of the no-nos.
Spell Casting

The Winds of Magic respond to the proper spoken words. Appropriately, then, the casting roll is made using the Language (Magick) skill, pitting it against the Casting Number of the spell. A Critical results in extra power at the cost of a roll on the Minor Miscast table, a list of unpleasant effects that include the possibility of a roll on the Major Miscast table. (A Fumble results in a miscast roll without the extra power.) Using expendable physical components provides some protection against miscasts. Thus, you have the explanation for incantations and arcane ingredients.

The setting also offers a single explanation for both wizards’ outlandish garb and their general avoidance of armor. It turns out that it’s harder to cast or channel (see below) if you aren’t dressed appropriately. This means wearing clothing that matches the Wind of your lore. Furthermore, metal armor and leather armor partially repel all but the gold and amber winds, respectively; ergo, metal and beast magicians are the only wizards who can wear metal or leather armor, respectively, without penalty.

Normally, I’m a fan of magic point systems. WFRP 4e doesn’t use one, but the designer created the next best thing: channeling. Essentially, the caster can use the Channeling skill to built up magical power from the Winds of Magic to pull off more powerful feats. The catch is that this is dangerous: As with casting, a Critical provides extra power at the price of a Minor Miscast roll, and a Fumble — which in this case occurs on a failed roll that is doubles or ends in a zero — results in a roll on the Major Miscast Table.

The game presents four kinds of spells: Petty, Arcane, Lore, and Chaos. Petty spells are like instinctive cantrips, and Arcane spells are usable by any type of magician, while Lore and Chaos spells require the appropriate Talents. That’s a lot of flexibility that keeps single-lore magicians from being quite so one-note.

The chapter includes many Petty and Arcane spells, a good selection of color spells and witch spells, and a brief sampling of Dark Lore and Chaos spells, the latter two of which are intended for NPC magicians. In yet another cool touch, spells of a given type have side-effects appropriate to that type; e.g., Lore of Fire spells will set the target on fire.

Taken as a whole, the magic system presents many familiar elements in new, logical, and flavorful ways.

The Gamemaster
General (but good!) gamemaster advice, including important tips about using the rules and awarding XP.

Of particular note is the information regarding travel, always an iffy proposition in the Old World. Included are considerations and expenses for travel by land and water and a random events table to spice up travel as needed.

Glorious Reikland
Here we have a magnificent gazetteer of the Reikland, bringing the geographical and political landscapes into vivid life. It’s all here, from the grandest of cities to the most fetid of marshlands and darkest of forests and ruins, complete with adventure seeds and magical places of note in colorful sidebars. It paints a picture of a place in which I very much desire to explore.

Also featured is a quite detailed timeline of the Reikland, from the earliest primitive settlements to the most recent past.

The Consumers’ Guide

This is a truly extensive equipment chapter. Not only does it cover the cost of everything from a pipe to a monkey, but it also deals with the monetary system, bartering, and crafting.

The weapon stats go well beyond simple damage bonuses, factoring in all the features that make a particular weapon special. For example, a fencing foil is a fast and precise weapon that isn’t much use against armor unless said armor has a weak point that the fencer manages to exploit, in which case it ignores the armor altogether.

Bestiary

Oh, I do love a good bestiary. And this is a good bestiary.

The chapter divides creatures by category:

  • The Peoples of the Reikland: Humans, Dwarfs, Halflings, Elves (High and Wood), and Ogres, plus a couple of sample Human individuals. (6 entries.)
  • The Beasts of the Reikland: “Normal” creatures, albeit including giant versions of some. (9 entries.)
  • The Monstrous Beasts of Reikland: General monsters, including Dragons, Giants, and Trolls. (16 entries.)
  • The Greenskin Hordes: Orcs, Goblins, and Snotlings. (3 entries.)
  • The Restless Dead: Skeletons, Zombies, Ghosts, Vampires, etc. (Surprisingly, no Liches, however.) (10 entries.)
  • Slaves to Darkness: Beastmen, Cultists, Mutants, Daemons, and Skaven. (13 entries.)
If 57 entries aren’t enough to get you started, keep in mind that each entry includes an array of optional Traits for customization.

Speaking of Traits, the Size Trait is particularly welcome, introducing various modifiers to combat between creatures of different Sizes. This is a major improvement over previous editions, because a Strength of 50 now means something very different for a Dwarf than it does for a Dragon.

Style

The full-color artwork throughout the book is both consistent and outstanding. I particularly appreciate the moody landscapes that capture the feel of the Reikland. The layout is equally easy on the eyes.

The writing, like the art, maintains a consistent tone, managing to sound pseudo-Renaissance while remaining quite legible and engaging. The bits of humor sprinkled throughout are welcome and not at all jarring. I noticed no typos.

The book is well-organized, with both the table of contents and the index being extensive and thorough.

Conclusion

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e
cleans up every issue I ever had with previous editions while remaining true to its dark fantasy lineage. Simply put, it is one of the most finely-crafted roleplaying games I have ever read, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone with even a passing interest in its grim and perilous subgenre.
 

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The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Don't Look Back: Terror is Never Far Behind 3rd edition


Introduction
The name’s Davenport. I review games.

So the other day a man in black shows up in my office. Black suit, black tie, black sunglasses, the works. He looks around like he’s afraid somebody’s watchin’, then reaches into his jacket and pulls out a rulebook, dropping it on my desk. Don’t Look Back, the cover says, Terror is Never Far Behind.

“What’s this?” I says.

“It isn’t a horror/conspiracy RPG with a rules-light system,” he says. “It doesn’t reveal the secrets of the shadowy organizations that really run the world. You won’t find details on all manner of extraterrestrial and extradimensional threats in it.”

“I won’t?”

“That’s right. You won’t.” he says. “And whatever you do, you shouldn’t review it.

“Oh, and I was never here,” he adds before he turns and walks out the door.

So, anyway, here’s the review I didn’t write for the book I never got.





Substance
Introduction
This chapter begins with a brief overview of the setting. It’s nothing new, really: The world isn’t as it seems, the paranormal exists and is covered up by layers upon layers of conspiracies, and so on. Actually, I think that if this chapter is meant for players as well as GMs, it reveals a bit too much — if nothing else, it states unequivocally that aliens exist in this world.

The text goes on to cover the standard description of roleplaying games and to give an example of play.

Rules
Don’t Look Back (hereafter DLB) uses the D6 x D6 system. As the name implies, all rolls are on 2d6 with the results of the two dice multiplied, for a range of 1-36.

Oddly, the dice roll is used against only one stat in the game: the Focus Number. Characters have an occupation — a highly-generalized skill — along with a number of more specific skills, some Focused, some Unfocused. The Focus Number equals the characters’ number of focused skills plus one for their occupation.

Rolls against the occupation or Focused skills attempt to roll higher than the Focus Number, with extra success levels scored at 10, 20, and 30 points higher than the Focus Number. Rolls against Unfocused skills attempt to roll lower than the Focus Number, with an extra success level scored at 5 points below the Focus Number. For skills with which the characters are Unfamiliar, they roll below the Focus Number without the possibility of extra success levels.

This took me a bit to wrap my mind around, but in the end, it made some sense to me. It’s obviously easier to roll against a focused skill; however, you can only devote so much time to being good at so many things, so the fewer things you do well, the better you will be at doing all of them.

In addition to occupation and skills, characters have four attributes: Brawn, Grace, Will, and Wits. One of these will be Focused, two Unfocused and one Unfamiliar. These are primarily reactive rather than proactive abilities and do not relate to skills. The latter generally irritates me in a game system, but I find that I can let it slide given the game’s ultralight nature.

I should mention that it’s possible to earn pluses to skills and attributes. These are not numbers, but rather literal plus signs marked after the ability in question. Each plus represents an additional success level scored. Universal ability caps are another irritant in game design for me, so this is a good thing in my book.

Difficulty levels from 1-3 can be applied to the higher of the two dice rolled — subtracted for Focused attempts, added for Unfocused and Unfamiliar attempts. Characters can also possess Advantages and Disadvantages, positively or negatively impacting the high die roll by 1 point, respectively, when they apply.

Drama Points

Characters receive six Drama Points at the beginning of each session. These may be applied to either of the two dice to adjust the outcome, or to reduce damage levels (see below) on a one-for-one basis. I enjoy minor metagaming mechanics, so this is a plus for me.

Combat

The game eschews initiative rolls. Instead, all parties roll their dice, with actions taking place in order from high roll down to low roll. I find that the results of such a mechanic can be a bit much to “unpack” from round to round, especially with many combatants involved, but I wouldn’t consider this a deal-breaker by any means.

Weapons are designed for brawling, throwing, or shooting ranges and do damage in the levels of graze, stun, hit, wound, knockout, or kill. These levels also correspond to the levels of damage that a normal human can take. Levels graze through wound have associated penalties of 1 through 4 to all actions, which, given the relatively small die scale, adds up in a hurry. As combat is supposed to be fast in this game, that’s a good thing. Additional damage of less than or equal to current damage causes the damage level to tick up one; damage levels higher than the current damage level supersede the current damage level. Extra success levels increase the damage level, and these extra levels may be divided among more than one opponent.

(I should mention that damage to psyche has an identical damage track.)

Each range uses either an appropriate skill for an attack, with one or two attributes allowed as substitutes with a one-success-level penalty. For example, Grace or Wits can be used for Shooting range.

Each range also includes a selection of reactive defensive attributes or (in the case of Brawling range) appropriate skills. If the appropriate ability is Focused, the incoming damage drops one level. Passive defense drops damage by 1-3 levels, depending upon the heaviness of the armor worn, but inflicts an equal penalty to all relevant rolls due to the armor’s bulkiness. Passive defense also replaces reactive defense, which seems a bit odd, but given the compressed scale we’re working with here, I’m willing to accept that.

The chapter includes a simple and robust vehicle combat system that follows the same basic rules but takes into account vehicle speed, cover, concealment, and weapon scale.

Characters
Once the system is understood, character creation is lightning-fast:

  1. Describe the character.
  2. Select your Focused and Unfamiliar attributes.
  3. Select an occupation.
  4. Select nine skills, 4-6 of which will be Focused.
  5. Calculate the Focus Number.
  6. Optionally, take one advantage and one disadvantage.
  7. Round out the character, including background and noteworthy equipment.
That last part is especially easy, as characters are assumed to have the equipment to do their jobs and have money appropriate to their circumstances.

The chapter includes examples of occupations, skills, advantages, and disadvantages. The skills are moderately specific, with each general weapon category, for example — knives, swords, pistols, rifles, etc. — being its own skill. Given the presence of the uber-broad occupation, I’m fine with that.

Game Host
Here we have the semi-obligatory GM advice chapter: How to run the game, select an adventure, use the rules, etc. It’s good stuff, if not particularly noteworthy. One exception is the nod to online play and the actual advantages such a venue offers — something near and dear to my heart.

More importantly to my mind, this chapter also features a bestiary of sample NPCs:

  • Beasts
    • Alligator
    • Bats
    • Bear
    • Dog
    • Hippopotamus
    • Panther
    • Poisonous Snake
    • Poisonous Spider
    • Rat
    • Shark
    • Tiger
    • Wolf
  • Minions
    • Thugs
      • Gangbanger
      • Blade
      • Bruiser
      • Gunsel
      • Cultist
    • Lieutenants
      • Right-Hand Man
      • Team Leader
  • Villians
    • Evil Priestess
    • Monomaniac
    • Serial Killer
  • Monsters
    • Alien Predator
    • Dread God
    • Mutant Crocodile
    • Radioactive Blob
It’s worth noting that for obvious reasons, Beasts don’t have a whole lot of Focused skills. This, in turn, gives them a very low Focus Number, which makes them very dangerous combatants.

The chapter next offers a fairly extensive list of special equipment, including weapon modifications like flash suppressors and laser sights, and concludes with an intriguing list of adventure seeds.

Paranormal
DLB posits a world in which millions of years of genetic and metaphysical tampering have produced humans and other beings with unnatural abilities. These abilities are not truly supernatural, but rather the results of science not yet understood. To be honest, I think the game could do a better job of manifesting these pseudoscientific creatures and abilities, as many seem no different at all from their pop culture counterparts.

The chapter covers various manifestations of the paranormal — paranormal creatures, gifted PCs, extraterrestrials, extradimensional, and the occult — as well as a series of plot hooks involving them. It does a good job of describing the scope of the unnatural in the setting.

The chapter goes on to detail various paranormal traits that humans and creatures may possess, which are broken down into abilities (which normally do not require rolls to use), skills (which function like ordinary skills in terms of mechanics), and limitations (which can be linked to either paranormal abilities or skills). Numerous examples of all three are included, which can be used to create any number of interesting creatures. The only drawback is the lack of guidelines for giving characters paranormal abilities. It appears to be a matter of GM fiat, but I can’t really tell.

World
Here the book delves into both the prehistory and history of the setting as well as the status of the modern day. Without giving too much away, the chapter details the alien influences on Earth’s development and the origin of the conspiracy doing its best to run the world, tying in the history of the paranormal along the way. Again, the text seems to indicate that most, if not all, of the paranormal is of pseudo-scientific origin, even though the selection of decidedly supernatural creatures elsewhere in the book doesn’t seem to bear that out.

The chapter also goes into detail about how modern day organizations function in this setting: government, law enforcement from local to federal levels, religion (including extremist groups), the media, and the scientific community.

Conspiracy
As you might imagine, there’s even less that I can say about this chapter than I could about the previous one without giving away major spoilers. What I can say is that the chapter goes into great detail about the various movers and shakers in the DLB setting, including how they recruit and how to incorporate them into a game. Along the way, the text introduces the DLB incarnations of the Knights Templar, the Men in Black, and monstrosity-summoning cults. It also features two organizations that are ideal employers for PCs: (1) an X-Files-like federal law enforcement branch called the Atypical Crimes Taskforce (ACT) and (2) a media organization uncorrupted by the Powers That Be and certain that the Truth is Out There called The Unredacted Truth.

Encounters
DLB sports a reasonably generous bestiary, especially considering the list of sample NPCs in the Game Host chapter. Each entry includes full stats and a sizable description.

  • Aliens, Mutants and Engineered Creatures
    • Brain-Sucking Aliens
    • Cybernetic Assassin
    • Flesh Eating Bacteria Colony
    • Greys
    • Vines, Carnivorous
  • Paranormal Creatures
    • Banshees
    • Dead Nature
    • Demon, Lesser
    • Fright
    • Ghoul
    • Ghost
    • Implings
    • Liquidites
    • Mummy
    • Mummy Lich
    • Possession, Mass
    • Succubus
    • Vampires, Average
    • Werewolf
    • Zombies, Classic
    • Zombies, Flesh Eating
The only flaw I see in the list is the lack of information on the technology of the Greys. But then, I’ve always been a sucker for flying saucers.

Adventures
Introductory adventures show how the author views a typical game and helps players jump right in, so I’m particularly grateful that DLB offers two.

House on Dolley Hill

This is a simple but effective ghost story with pregen characters from The Unredacted Truth. It includes an interesting backstory for the PCs to discover through clever investigation and a great creepy Southern Gothic atmosphere.

The Facade

This one’s designed with player-created PCs working for the Atypical Crimes Taskforce in mind. The good news is that it’s a great way to introduce the PCs to both the reality of the paranormal and the influence of some of the setting’s major conspiracies. The bad news is that the nature of the primary antagonist will be apparent to the PCs with first crime scene. They may suspect that it’s too obvious and that there must be a fake-out involved, but there is not.

Style
The art, both black and white as well as full-color, is pretty good and quite consistent. The layout has a nice dossier look to it, although the grey background is a tad dark for the black text.

The writing expresses a nice sense of humor without detracting from the overall mood of hidden menace. The text explains the rules fairly clearly, although I had to take a second or third look to find a few details. I noticed no typos.

The book lacks an index, which might have addressed that second-and-third-look issue.

Conclusion
This probably isn’t the best game for me. The system, while pretty slick, is a bit too abstract for my tastes. That said, it is a great choice if you want a simple system and a broad horror/conspiracy setting. The nature of the paranormal could use a little tightening up, but that shouldn’t matter if you’re mainly after a “kitchen sink” horror setting. And if the paranormal aspect isn’t that cohesively described, the book makes up for it with the extensive details on the conspiratorial side of things.

In short, if you’re after a horror game with everything from aliens to vampires and a vast conspiracy trying to cover it all up, and if you’d like to experience such a setting through the lens of a simple system, this may be the game for you.
 

Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe reviews: The Witcher RPG


Introduction

The name's Davenport. I review games.

So the other day an armored fantasy-lookin' fella walks into my office with white hair, cat's eyes, a nasty scar runnin' down his face, and a sour expression. Couldn't really blame'im. He looked like he'd been through the wringer.

"Greetings," he says. "I'm a Witcher."

"A witch or what?" I says.

"A Witcher," he says. "I'm a magical mutant who hunts monsters for pay."

"There much money in that gig?"

"Not much," he says, "but it's what I was made for."

"I can relate," I says. "So what brings you by today?"

He pulls a book with his mug on the cover outta his bag and drops it on the desk. "I've a review job for you. The Witcher roleplaying game."

I look it over. "So is this about killin' monsters for not enough moolah?"

"It can be," he says. "But you can play all manner of characters: A doctor, a wizard, a priest, a bard, a warrior, and more besides."

"Sounds good," I says. "I'll give it a look. But tell me somethin': Are you sure you don't make enough money?"

"Yes, quite certain. Why?"

"Seems like someone in your line of work would make a killin'."

WitcherTRPGCoverforMedia


Substance

Setting

Based on the novels of Andrzei Sapkowski, the video game series, and the Netflix TV series, The Witcher takes place in the Continent, a medieval fantasy setting with familiar elements like elves and dwarves. It's a much darker take on the subject matter, however. For one thing, the place is at war between the Northern Kingdoms and the brutal expansionist Empire of Nilfgaard. For another, there aren't any obvious "good guy" nations -- while the Nilfgaardians are the aggressors, the Northern Kingdoms -- the default homeland of the PCs -- aren't particularly nice places. Humans dominate, dwarves are (mostly) tolerated, and elves and mages are hated and persecuted. Some of the nonhumans have formed a resistance group known as the Scoia'tael, a second threat to the Northern Kingdoms.

The eponymous witchers are humans turned magical mutant super-soldiers, bred for the express purpose of killing monsters... for a price. Unfortunately, they were a little too good at their jobs in the sense that they basically drove the monsters to extinction. The monsters became the stuff of myths, and the Witchers themselves became the objects of fear and hatred.

Now, for whatever reason, monsters are making a comeback, and Witchers have become a rare breed.

I can see the setting appealing to fans of dark fantasy. It's a bit too dark for me, I think -- so many of the most appealing character options seem practically unplayable in a social sense. Of course, for some, that degree of difficulty would be the point.

The RPG takes place after the second video game, The Witcher: Assassin
of Kings
. Interestingly, the RPG takes into account the branching nature of the video games by presenting a series of key events and individuals and their impacts depending upon how events turn out. It's a bit much to track in my opinion, but I like having the option.

The book includes eight of the major characters from the setting, including Geralt of Rivia, the signature witcher of the source material.

As is proper for a game involving monster-hunting, the game includes a decent-sized bestiary:

  • Bandits
  • Mages
  • Scoia'tael Archers
  • Drowners
  • Ghouls
  • Grave Hags
  • Wraiths
  • Noon Wraiths
  • Wolves & Wargs
  • Werewolves
  • Sirens
  • Griffins
  • Endrega
  • Arachasae
  • Golems
  • Fiends
  • Nekkers
  • Rock Trolls
  • Wyverns
  • Katakans
  • Cats & Dogs
  • Birds & Serpents
  • Horses & War Horses
  • Oxen & Mules
I regret the lack of dragons in this list, but perhaps they aren't meant as foes for PCs until much later in advancement.

Note that the bestiary lacks any sort of social monster species like goblins or orcs. This makes sense, as the game is about monster hunting, not monster warfare.

Rules

At its core, The Witcher uses a fairly basic Attribute + Skill + 1d10 vs. Difficulty mechanic -- a variant of R. Talsorian's Games' Interlock system. In cases in which the Difficulty is an opposed roll, ties go to the defender.

Character Creation

Characters have four Statistics with a range of 1-10 for normal humans that can be generated randomly or via point allocation:
  • Intelligence
  • Reflexes
  • Dexterity
  • Body (strength and endurance)
  • Speed
  • Empathy
  • Craft
  • Will
  • Luck
I always appreciate games that distinguish between full body movement and hand-eye coordination, so this system wins points from me here. I also like the inclusion of Luck, which is a minor metagame mechanic that allows players to spend points of the Statistic for bonuses to rolls on a 1-for-1 basis. I'm not quite as keen on Craft being an attribute, but given the importance the game gives crafting, I can accept it.

I'd say the skills are moderately specific. As an example, the game divides hand weapons into Melee (whips, bludgeons, and axes), Small Blades, Staff/Spear, and Swordsmanship. This feels about right for the setting.

Characters can be of the following races:
  • Witchers
  • Elves
  • Dwarves
  • Humans
Note that witchers are all former humans, so they aren't technically a "race". They possess enhanced senses and reflexes, are immune to diseases, and suffer from dulled emotions.

The elves and dwarves are mostly what you've come to expect, except perhaps that the elves aren't unusually graceful -- that would step on the witchers' turf, I suppose. Instead, they're natural archers and artists and are attuned to nature.

I like the fact that humans have their own perks rather than simply being the baseline race. In this case, humans are more trustworthy to other humans -- an odd sort of perk, really, as I'd think the same would apply to members of other races interacting with their own kind -- and possess natural ingenuity and stubbornness in the face of adversity.

The game uses a somewhat loose class system in the form of professions:
  • Bard
  • Craftsman
  • Criminal
  • Doctor
  • Mage
  • Man At Arms
  • Merchant
  • Priest
  • Witcher
Professions are classes mainly in the sense that each class has a Defining Skill that only a member of that profession can perform. For example, anyone can sing or play an instrument, but only a bard can succeed at Busking.

Furthermore, each profession has three potential career paths in the form of a skill tree, each path having three progressive skills. For example, a Criminal can follow the path of the Thief, the Gang Boss, or the Assassin.

Note that these progressions don't always make the most sense. The Craftsman's Defining Skill is Patch Job, which allows the character to jury rig repairs to weapons and armor, yet one of the career paths springing from this is Alchemist.

("Witcher" is both a race and that race's sole and exclusive profession. In other words, all witchers are witchers, and only witchers can be witchers, period.)

Finally, the game features an extensive Lifepath system used to determine the PC's origins and life thus far. It's a bit of a mini-game that can help determine boons and flaws, friends and enemies. (Note that Witchers get their own Lifepath.) I don't often have the patience for this much detail in character creation, but I can see the value in it.

Combat

Combat in The Witcher involves opposed skill rolls with a number of options for both attack and defense. Of particular interest to me is the fact that combatants can make either fast or strong strikes -- the former allowing two attacks with no penalty, the latter made at -3 but causing double damage.

Armor reduces damage, and that's important, because damage is really bad in this game and is based on a number of factors. First of all, hit locations -- whether targeted or randomly rolled -- matter, with each location having a different damage multiplier. Next, characters have a wound threshold based upon maximum Health Points which, when exceeded, reduces Reflexes, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Willpower in half. Then here are critical wounds, which kick in when an attack beats defense by 7 (a simple critical) and increases at 10 over (complex), 13 over, (difficult), and 15 over (deadly). Each level adds bonus damage, forces a Stun save, and forces a roll on a critical wound table, one for each level. A critical wound, in turn, may lead to such ongoing conditions as bleeding or poisoned. It's all quite appropriate for a game that sets out to be gritty, but I'm afraid it's a bit too much for me to keep track of, personally.

Magic

Only special individuals in the world of The Witcher can wield magic, and even then, they require training. Spell casting is skill-based using the Willpower attribute. Magical characters have a Stamina attribute that functions as magic points and a Vigor Threshold that indicates how much magic the characters can channel safely. Magicians can exceed their Vigor Threshold by expending Health Points to make up the Stamina cost difference on a 5-to-1 basis.

I like this system on the whole, being biased as I am toward magic point systems. I also appreciate systems that can simulate a magician putting extra effort into a spell at a cost.

I also like games that add flavor to different varieties of magic, and The Witcher delivers here, too. The game includes magic of multiple types:
  • Mage Spells: In theory, these spring from the elements of earth, air, fire, water, or a combination of the four. In practice, I'm not clear on how this is supposed to work. Mental spells are elemental, for example? Still, there's a good selection of spells here.
  • Priest Invocations: Supposedly powered by divine forces rather than the elements, these take the form of either druid or preacher invocations. The selection of invocations isn't as impressive as the list of spells, and only the powerful arch-priest invocations are associated with specific deities. (And even then, it's just one invocation per deity.)
  • Witcher Signs: Minor magic tricks that are a bit more powerful than cantrips but are less powerful than spells. (The text aptly describes signs as daggers compared to the long sword of spells.) There are only ten of these, but I'm okay with that -- I get the impression that signs are just one of many arrows in a witcher's quiver.
  • Rituals: Time- and component-consuming spells that are nevertheless easily learned and potentially more powerful than mage spells.
  • Hexes: Weak formulaic magic in the form of minor curses.
The section on hexes mentions full-blown curses as well, but they get their own chapter and are plot devices rather than tools for PCs. That's fine by me, although given how powerful some of these curses are, lycanthropy among them, I find myself wishing that there were some mechanic for resisting them rather than just for lifting them.

Crafting

The book makes much of the fact that gear is pricey in this world, making the crafting and repair of items very appealing. It's only appropriate, then, that the text should include extensive rules on crafting.

The result is yet another mini-game. PCs must first obtain a diagram of the item to be crafted, then obtain ingredients (some of which, like leather and steel, have to be crafted themselves), then make a crafting roll, referencing multiple tables along the way. Once again, the level of detail is a bit much for me, but the process makes sense, and I can see it working for players interested in gritty simulationism.

On a related note, there are many sorts of equipment specific to witchers, from their signature swords of silver and meteoric steel to potions they can imbibe or use on their weapons to mutagens that can permanently enhance the witcher. These appear to be extremely hard to come by with the near-extinction of witchers, which means a witcher PC initially will lack their standard monster-hunting equipment (unless I'm missing something).

Style

This full-color book features very attractive and consistent art throughout. The layout works well for the most part, although the table of contents looks like it was made by someone unaware of how tabs and leaders work.

The text is generally straightforward and conversational, although I found the prevalent slang-heavy commentary from the dwarf Rodolf Kazmer a bit tiresome. On the flip side, I feel as though the main text could use a bit more flavor. In some places, the writing becomes jarringly modern -- the imagery of an over-armored warrior looking like "the Michelin Man’s mercenary brother" comes to mind, as does a reference to Scooby-Doo.

I found the organization of the chapters somewhat hard to follow here and there. No typos stood out to me, however.

Conclusion

The Witcher presents a grim, morally gray setting that borders on bleak but leaves room for heroics nonetheless. As such, I can see it appealing to fans of other dark settings like that of Warhammer. Personally, I find the hatred of nonhumans to be too unpleasant for me to really enjoy this world, but I know some players thrive on that sort of drama.

The system at its core is right up my alley but quickly grows too complex for my tastes. I think the level of detail suits the gritty setting, however.

In short, if monster-hunting in a dark, gritty setting sounds like fun to you, it would be worth checking out The Witcher.
 
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Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence


Introduction

The name's Davenport. I review games.

So the other day this swell dame strolls into my office. Great set of gams, and a nice, skimpy outfit.

And a mohawk.

And four arms. Carrying a chainsaw, a blaster, a glowing black sword, and a book.

And covered with purple slop.

"Greetings from the Stygian darkness of the eldritch void beyond voids, meatsack. Got a review copy for ya."

"Ooookay," I says. "Um... What's the gig?"

"The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence," she says. "An old-school D&D-based hex crawl."

"That explains the purple slop, I guess," I says. "But D&D? Uh... Scotty the Dwarf usually drops off that sorta thing. What's with the dark future get-up?"

"Islands has everything," she says, wavin' her arms and slinging purple slop everywhere. "Mutants. Dinosaurs. Aliens. Trans-dimensional freaks of every sort."

"Gonzo?" I says.

"Gonzo," she says.

"Gotcha," I says. "I'll give it the treatment. Meantime, you want a towel?"

"Why?"

"You got a little something on your... well, everything."



Substance

The book isn't just an adventure. It includes a series of rules options, only some of which are specific to the setting.

One general observation before we get into the meat of the thing: I wasn't sure just by reading this adventure about what system it's meant to use, nor could I determine the character levels for which it's intended. The references to Law, Neutrality, and Chaos with Good and Evil led me to believe that it's for Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons, but the author tells me that he's played it with Swords & Wizardry, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and D&D 5e. He also tells me that it's for character levels 1-7, although I can't imagine low-level characters surviving for very long.

VSD6

Oddly, the adventure includes its own simple task resolution system that the author refers to as VSD6. Basically, the player rolls 2d6 for an average task, adding or subtracting dice based upon the circumstances, including a bonus die for relevant experience and a bonus or penalty die for very low or high attributes. The player takes the highest die, with the number rolled indicating the degree of failure or success in a manner that puts me in mind of Powered by the Apocalypse. I like the way the system simply determines degree of success... The problem is that this is for a level-based game without any apparent effect of level on task resolution. I'm also not completely clear as to whether this is meant for use in combat or only non-combat skill applications.

Even Darker Secrets

For two attribute re-rolls at character creation, players can roll on the Darker Secrets table. Some of these secrets are really disturbing, however, including the PC being a serial killer, a rapist, or a child of incest. That's way too squicky for me.

Flashback

The section lists 20 situations that may be chosen or rolled, each an event that happened in the PC's past. The GM reads the event, and the player relates how his character responded. I like the idea in theory, but I'm afraid some of the options would have too big of an impact on the character's backstory. For example, one possibility has the character's father insisting that his child train as a swordsman or leave home. If the character's class isn't that of a fighter, presumably he was forced to leave home.

Magic Use (Purple Spellcasting)

Magic is meant to be more powerful but also more random in this setting. Accordingly, the player rolls 1d6 with each spell cast. On a 6, the effect of the spell doubles. On a 1, the effect of the spell reverses. And on a 3, the player must roll 1d20 and reference a number of random spell side-effects. I think this approach fits the setting, but I'm concerned that most of the effects are so specific as to become ridiculous if repeated -- the appearance of the same demon lord appearing to demand subservience comes to mind.

The section offers an alternative to a spell reversal on a roll of 1: The caster can instead choose to align with Chaos, warping body and mind in the process. This goes well with the nature of magic on the islands. I only wonder what happens to those already aligned with Chaos, and what happens if the option is taken more than once. I'd like to see the potential for progressive mutations.

Dimensional gateways apparently open all the time on the islands. The section provides a 1d20 table of locations where any given gateway might lead. Like the spell side-effects, these are fairly specific, but as a dimensional gateway's appearance presumably won't be as common as spell-casting, this doesn't bother me as much.

Fighting for Your Life

Here the book introduces wound penalties of a sort, but with a twist: Combatants actually get a +2 bonus to hit and damage on their next attack after taking their first wound in combat. That's a little different, but I can see the reasoning behind it. Conversely, a -2 penalty applies to hit and damage when combatants fall to 25% of their total hit points. Since the concept of D&D PCs being at 100% ability right up until death has always bugged me, I'm good with this as well. However, if the initial blow reduces the combatant to 25% of total hit points, he receives no bonus nor penalty for the remainder of the battle. I can't quite make heads or tails of that.

The Monk Character Class

For no obvious reason, the book introduces the author's version of the monk. This version looks pretty close to the standard (A)D&D version at first, with no armor, simple weapons, and unarmed attacks. Then it kind of goes of on its own, adding a Captivate Audience ability that seems more appropriate for a bard and a brain-exploding ability straight out of the movie Scanners. The latter appears to be level-independent and save-free, meaning that a first-level monk could explode the brain of a high-level opponent just as easily as that of a low-level goon. That's way too overpowered.

Fighting Men and Magic Swords

In keeping with the fairly brutal nature of the setting, the author here provides a table of increasingly nasty results of critical hits with magic swords numbered from 1-12. On a roll of 19 to hit, the player rolls 1d8 and consults the table; on a roll of 20 to hit, the player rolls 1d12 instead. Again, I have to emphasize that these results get really nasty, up to and including instant death via decapitation.

Ego of the Sword

On these islands, every magic sword is intelligent -- even previously unintelligent magic swords that are brought there. I think that's fairly clever.

The book removes the threat of a direct clash of egos between sword and wielder, however, requiring these to be roleplayed. Essentially, a sword must wear down its owner with constant pestering -- something I feel takes away from the potential drama of using an intelligent weapon. It also seems a bit out of step with the rest of the harsh realities of life on the islands.

The section provides a table of possible personality traits and quirks of the sword, some of which are particularly strange, like snoring. Also, the table includes the ability to hack computers as a "quirk," while none of the other quirks provide any benefit at all.

Origin of a Sword

Here we have eight possible enigmatic origin stories from intelligent swords. I guess this could come in handy if a GM is stumped for a response on the subject from a sword, but none of the responses are particularly informative.

That's Going to Leave a Scar!

This section offers twenty possible lasting wounds for PCs who are reduced below zero hit points but survive. It's a serviceable enough list, although I think the degree of penalty for wounds should be included. I'm not sure how much to penalize a PC for having a "trick elbow," for example.

History of the Islands

The text presents a timeline of events on the islands going back 20,000 years and giving multiple reasons for the place being so freaking weird -- among them, the creation of Land of the Lost-style pylons enabling spatial, temporal, and dimensional travel. Good stuff.

Purple Stones

So it turns out that the islands are alive and have their own motivations, of which this section offers six possibilities. When characters act in accordance with these motivations, they can receive purple stones that can be traded in for 1d6 to be used as the characters like. When characters act against the islands' desires, the stones are taken away. I really like this idea, although how the characters receive the stones and how they learn what they're for isn't at all clear.

Fun Things to do on the Islands

By default, this book offers a sandbox-style hex crawl. Here, however, the text presents ten possible overarching plots for the PCs to face. I think this is an excellent option, as not every group of gamers will be happy with simple exploration.

Personal Connection to the Islands

The islands seem to be a gonzo hellscape that nobody sane would want to visit. This section addresses that issue, providing twenty possible reasons for traveling there -- an excellent inclusion.

Rumor Has It

Twenty rumors about the islands -- some true, some false. I always liked such lists in old-school adventure modules, so I'm happy to see one here.

During the Night

Perhaps to drive home just how weird the islands are, the book offers a 1d100 table of strange overnight events to be referenced once per game week. Many of the possibilities are nicely freaky and surreal, but some of them would bring an adventure to a screeching halt -- among them, the impending destruction of the entire world.

Coin of the Realm

The section is a misnomer insofar as islanders don't use coins. Instead, it's more like a barter economy... and among the most prized trade items are attractive females. If this is enough to turn you off of the book, I'll understand. If not, be warned that this is a recurring theme throughout the adventure.

Sherpa Quest

Here the book discusses the value of guides on the islands and the need to treat them well. The section only offers base chances for the guide's knowledge of the immediate vicinity, the current island, and all three islands, without indicating how to determine if the sherpa knows any particular fact.

No Blasphemy, Please

Unsurprisingly, the Dark Gods are particularly active on the islands, and blaspheming them results in a 24-hour penalty to saving throws. If that doesn't drive the point home, doing so in the presence of a head worshiper automatically results in a bolt from the blue striking the blasphemer down.

Nevertheless, other gods apparently keep tabs on activity on the islands as well. There's a flat 13% chance -- why 13%, I have no idea -- that a god will answer a petitioner's prayers.

That's a lot of divine power being thrown around. Given the gonzo setting, I'm okay with that, although I'd prefer the chance of intervention to be based upon the faithfulness of the individual worshiper.

The Thing that Rots from the Sky

Here the book describes the islands' eponymous Purple-Haunted Putrescence -- a one mile long by two miles wide hovering glob of tentacles, mouths, and general dripping grossness. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the way it floats about, and when it's overhead, there's a 1 in 6 chance of it snagging people and swallowing them whole. At 1,000 hit points, it's not meant to be fought. It's just kind of there as a constant threat. It's definitely creepy... I'm just not sure how I'd use it in a game. It does have worshipers on the island, however.

Beneath the Islands

Turns out mysterious high-tech controls for the islands await underground -- an intriguing prospect. Unfortunately, while the book includes a map of the complex containing these controls, there are no details of this dungeon's inhabitants.

Dream Lands

The islands exist somewhere between the waking world and H.P. Lovecraft's Dream Lands, which is yet another source of the place's strangeness. The text explains that as a result, fear is intensified and opens portals to dark dimensions. This seems to overlap with the effects of the pylons, but that's no big deal.

Mutant Rain

Even the rain is bad. The rain is both acidic and mutagenic, causing damage and possible mutations on anyone caught in it.

Purple Mist

...Aaaaand once the rain stops, a living purple fog rises that can insta-kill those out and about. This is getting ridiculous.

Control Panels

The islands feature illusion-shrouded control panels that can allow telepathic communication, produce force fields, and interface with the islands' master controls. What the latter entails, I'm not sure -- the text doesn't say what this can accomplish.

Black Pylons

The previously-mentioned black pylons allow temporal, spatial, and dimensional travel, although they require a device called a channeler to select a specific destination. This provides a potential quest for PCs as well as a source for infinite possibilities of future adventures.

Crystals, Crystals, Crystals

Crystals are a big deal on the islands. Crystals of various colors offer a number of powers, although many of them cause daily attribute loss to those carrying them, and some only work when inside a black pylon. Touching crystals of different colors touched can produce still other powers. These are great motivators for adventures, although I'm not sure how willing PCs will be to deal with the side effects.

Roleplaying versus Kill, Kill, Kill

The book advises that GMs and players discuss before playing whether they prefer talking out issues over fighting. I prefer that such things happen naturally during play, but knowing player expectations isn't a bad thing, really. I'm more dubious about the suggestion that PCs can subdue enemies rather than killing them by bringing them down to exactly one hit point. That's a bit difficult to do using a system with random damage.

Major Factions

Six important groups of various sizes reside on the islands. This section keeps their status dynamic using two tables: One to select the faction and the other to determine what's changed since they were last encountered. That's pretty handy.

Going Native

If the PCs spend an extended period of time with natives, this section provides a 1d12 table of possible events -- again, very handy! My only quibble is that two of the options mandate PC actions -- a big no-no for me.

Love Thy Neighbor

There's not much to tell here -- it's just a table to randomly determine the current stance of one faction about another.

Factions

Here the book does a great job of describing the various factions on the island: their appearance, numbers, leadership, belief system, nature, agenda, tech level, currency, and anything else that makes the group stand out.

  • Purple Putrescence Worshipers: What it says on the tin -- degenerate worshipers of The Thing That Rots From The Sky.
  • Overlords: The high-tech managers of the islands' subterranean controls.
  • Koshi: Primitive simian natives to the islands
  • Children of Light: Devout, crusading monotheists.
  • Snake-Men: The sorcerous serpentine former rulers of the planet.
  • Disciples of Zygak-Xith: Worshipers of a Lucifer-like fallen god seeking to become gods in their own right.
Wandering Monster Table

A 1d20 table of random encounters. As is the case with the stationary encounters, these are unique to the islands. I commend the creativity at on display here, although I'm forced to wonder about the level range for which this book is intended. Some of these random results are extremely weak, while others are absolutely apocalyptic.

Monster and NPC Saving Throw Chart

For whatever reason, the book presents a unified, all-purpose saving throw table. The table is hardly necessary, as the text explains that it's simply a matter of subtracting the being's hit dice from 20.

It's a Trap!

There's a 2-in-3 chance that any given hex the PCs enter will contain a primitive, technological, magical, or early warning trap. That's an awful lot of traps. I can see that quickly growing tiresome for the players.

(continued...)
 

Dan Davenport

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The Islands

Here we have the meat of the book. The setting is comprised of three islands on the world of Razira: Korus, Kelis, and Kravian. The book provides a hex map of the archipelago along with the associated encounters.

Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot I can say about the contents here without providing a list of spoilers. I can, however, speak about the topic in generalities.

First and foremost, this is a collection of encounters. That might seem obvious, but I mean that it's not a series of encounters. By default, there's no overarching story going on here. It's simply a bunch of things that can be discovered through pure exploration. I'm not an expert on OSR, but I did play a lot of AD&D 1e back in the day, so this approach definitely takes me back. If that's the point of OSR, then this is spot-on.

These encounters are... different. The author takes full advantage of the inherent weirdness of the islands by presenting potential adversaries from all across space, time, and the dimensions. I can safely say that players will have no idea what to expect from this setting, which is a good thing. Other than a small handful of elves, there are no D&D standards here. There are cyborgs, aliens, cultists, mutant freaks, and eldritch horrors of all descriptions, however.

If there's any drawback to all this weirdness, it's that the book isn't clear what the rest of the world of Razira is like. Is all of this multi-genre craziness just a product of the islands, or is the whole world like that? If not, is Razira a standard D&D fantasy world? Could the PCs start out with, say, a laser gun? I have no idea. It's an important question, because by all indications, the PCs will not be from the islands themselves.

The book gets a bit too blasé about the weirdness in places. For example, one hex is simply described as featuring a "crashed starship". No map. No mention of planet of origin. No monsters. No sci-fi loot. Just a "crashed starship".

And speaking of maps, the author himself confesses that he didn't stock the dungeon-like areas of the islands, preferring to focus on the wilderness areas. That means a bit of extra work for GMs.

The book is rife with sci-fi and horror Easter eggs, among them A Nightmare on Elm Street, Phantasm, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Planet of the Apes, and Heavy Metal. All of these make it difficult to take the adventure too seriously, but I suspect that was the intent.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn't address the "mature content" about which the cover warns prospective readers. There's nothing truly graphic here. Instead, the "mature content" is, in truth, the sort of juvenile naughtiness that early-teen geeks might envision: A rape plant, a dimension-tossed porn star (complete with casting couch), and loot including used condoms all come immediately to mind. I found none of this particularly shocking so much as, frankly, dumb. I suppose it's like comedy, though -- it's an individual thing.

New Spells

This section presents a selection of new second-, third-, and fourth-level spells that may be known by natives to the islands. Several of them seem overpowered to me.

This Night I Shall Purple Your Soul, for example, is a second-level spell that forces the target to become obsessed with sacrificing himself to the Purple-Haunted Putrescence on a failed save. So, the spell essentially incapacitates the target and possibly kills him.

Then there's Dreamscape, a fourth-level which allows the caster to enter an enemy's dream and assassinate him. So, it's essentially an instant death spell.

New Magic Items

Here the book offers up 28 new magical artifacts. Some, like the Staff of Pervasive Death, with its 50' cone draining 2d6 constitution from everyone (1d6 on a save) and its ability to automatically kill a humanoid once per day unless a save is made, are extremely powerful. Others, like the Canteen of Ventriloquism, which lets an individual throw his voice while drinking from it, are just extremely silly. Some, like the Eye of Arzra Kain, which is an amulet containing a living eye that looks around and can creep people out, are mostly useless. And some, like the Necklace of Ears, which supposedly bestows heightened hearing and intimidation, lack any system stats whatsoever.

Style

The black-and-white art in this book is fairly good and puts me in mind of something between the art early D&D early Call of Cthulhu. The cover, though, with its big, shiny, g-strung butt in the foreground, makes me wince.

The writing gets its point across and somewhat amusingly plays even the most ridiculous elements purely straight. I did notice several typos, and run-on sentences are much in evidence, but it's nothing too terrible.

The layout, like so much else about this book, hearkens back to old-school products. As such, I'd have to say that it's not so much "attractive" as it is "appropriate".

Conclusion

Boy oh boy, how to wrap this one up...

Well, first off, I can safely say that I'm not in the target market for this product. I'm not an OSR guy, and even if I were, I still don't think the author's wacky fun-house approach would appeal to me now as it might have in the old days. And the "mature content" is a net negative for me.

But I suppose that's the point: I'm sure there are old-school gamers who would eat this up, juvenile "mature content" and all. For them, I suspect that this book will be a gonzo gold mine that just needs a bit of spit and polish to get it into full working order.

Oh, let's be honest, here: I'm purely speculating at this point. I don't personally know anyone who would like this book, but I can think of friends from my roleplaying youth who would have loved it. Maybe some nostalgic part of me hopes that there are still folks out there eager for their elf rangers to face off against nubile half-naked mohawked mutants from the future. If you're one of those retro-freaky people, come and get it, my friend.

Just mind the slop.
 

CT_Phipps

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[Vampire: The Masquerade] [5E] Review of the Chicago Folios


4/5

THE CHICAGO FOLIOS is one of two supplements successfully added as Kickstarter stretch goals for the wildly successful CHICAGO BY NIGHT 5E for VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE. Chicago by Night 5th Edition updated the famous city supplement to the year 2018 and brought substantial changes to the Windy City. Furthermore, it had a wonderful effect on games as a whole as like the web series LA BY NIGHT by Jason Carl, it illustrated to many fans how the new setting was supposed to work on practice. We understood how the Camarilla, Anarchs, Elders, and Neonates were meant to interact in a post-Gehenna War world.

The Chicago Folios is best described as a book of adventure hooks. It also has a number of NPC write-ups and Loresheets but is primarily a book designed to give you a bunch of ready-to-run short stories if you don't have any ideas for the evening. These aren't full Chronicles like "The Sacrifice" in or even "Baptism by Fire" but a rough outline of a story as well as three or four ideas on how it could end. There were dozens of these in the back of Chicago by Night 5E and I very much enjoyed them all.

The adventure hooks are, for the most part, fairly low stakes. These are not adventures about admitting the Lasombra in the Camarilla but more like settling the individual fates of one vampire or another. Sometimes, they're not even that like a hook based around helping an Ancilla turn an empty building into a new Elysium. But if house flipping isn't your idea of what a dark creature of the night should be up to, there's still plenty of solid hooks like resolving the issue of Gengis' "Anarch List" and dealing with a group of Thin Blooded murderers who are engaged in Blood Bank robberies that threaten the Masquerade.

Indeed, I think the best adventures of this are the ones that designed to be run in a single night with a beginning, middle, and end. Some of the adventures benefit from being more a premise than anything else. "The Black Rose Society" is a group of Toreador who are engaged in cannibalism of Thin Bloods among other horrific Ashwood Abbey (see Hunter: The Vigil) Sabbat-esque decadence. The only solution for humane Kindred is to burn the place down but this is going to make them a huge number of enemies. The Second Inquisition stories show horrifying Nazi-like experiments taking place alongside them trying to stop genuinely monstrous Kindred.

I think it's very possible to also combine a lot of these adventure hooks into a Chronicle that is quite exciting if you work at it. Multiple vampire plots occurring simultaneously can substitute for a larger storyline in the background or add to one as we see in Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. You can also combine all of the tiny little plots into one big one.

In addition to the adventure hooks, there's a good number of awesome NPCs spread throughout the book. These include some old favorites like the Wolf Pack, Al Capone, and Shejana as well as a totally new cast of characters. I especially liked Arden Canty, the Priest of Caine who has recently moved to Chicago after defecting from the Sabbat and losing faith in its due to its atrocities. I do have a minor complaint that Joshua Tarponski (a.k.a Blackjack) receives a stat write-up but not a full character write-up with his history, plans, and associations. I feel like he's character who deserved a full write-up.

Much to my surprise, this book ties into CULTS OF THE BLOOD GODS and includes the addition of The Church of Caine, Church of Set, Cult of Mithras, Ashfinders, the Bahari, and a new weird cult devoted to a severed tongue among its adventure hooks. I felt a scene where a Bahari member compares Caine to Ted Bundy was a bit ridiculous since they worship a goddess who kills pregnant women but that's on me. There's a few characters who didn't quite land with me, including one who attempts to interpret the Camarilla through a patriarchy lens that I feel undermines characters like Helena and the Sybil. Really, the world of V:TM should be a bit of a refuge from real life struggles as we're all united in our disdain for the real inferiors of our society: humans.

The big benefit of this book is that it actually gives some solid answers on things that have been asked by players since the new line started: including the state of the Sabbat and the status of the Ravnos. According to this book, the Sabbat in North America have collapsed and no longer are holding territory. They have since been reduced to terrorist cell-based groups engaged in campaigns of sick mind games. One of the best bits of in-game fiction is a suicide note from a man completely broken by exposure to the "new" Sabbat. The new Sabbat are pretty much the old Sabbat but their horrifying treatment of mortals is now being treated seriously. No longer are they the Leatherface, Hydra, and Joker sect so much as the Ed Gein, ISIS, and John Wayne Gacy sect. As for the Ravnos, character Shejana is now treated as Caitiff with saying her clan is now gone in what is either the Week of Nightmares or a second traumatic event. Chimestry is also replaced with either Dominate, Obfuscate, or both.

There's a selection of new Loresheets in the book including Descendant of Menele, the Convention of Chicago [for Camarilla characters], and a few others. I feel like there's a missed opportunity here as there ren't many Anarch Loresheets and they had their own section. A Maldavis and Anita Wainwright Loresheet would have been appropriate here. I really loved the Goblin Roads Loresheet, though, as I did a short story about a Psychopomp in Darkened Streets. The book finally ends with a bunch of Tremere rituals adapted for 5th Edition and I feel these are desperately needed for anyone who wants to play a mage.

The art in this book is incredible. I loved the art in Chicago by Night 5E and felt it was a great improvement over the edgy photo-quality images of the main book. The Chicago Folios steps it up a notch, though, and many of the pictures tell actual stories. Really, I think this book is great and a solid 4 star entry into the World of Darkness' libraries. This book is presently only available for Kickstarter backers of Chicago by Night 5th Edition but will soon be available on Drivethru RPG in PDF as well as Print on Demand (POD).
 

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ReMemorex: Convention-based review


There aren't many RPG conventions in my neck of the woods (at least, as far as I can tell), so when I heard about Double Exposure's Dreamation (who names these things?) in Morristown this last weekend, I made a point of attending. I was even able to trick convince Baulderstone Baulderstone to meet up with me, since the convention site was even closer to him. I brought another friend who is a fairly recently-minted RPGer, while Baulderstone brought an utter newbie. I mention this because we had a fairly broad spectrum of RPG experience in our little crew.

Unfortunately, by the time we were able to gather together at the table sign-ups, all the more popular tables were full. In fact, there were only a smattering of games with enough seats for all four of us. We had been approached by a GM looking to recruit players for his homebrew game which he described as a blend of Stalker and Annihilation. That sounded pretty damn promising, but when you're dealing with a homebrew game at a convention, you're really taking your chances. In the end, we decided to join the table running ReMemorex, an indie game saturated with 80's nostalgia.

Long story short: we had a good time, but mostly because we're just a fun bunch of people. The game and adventure were weak sauce. In retrospect, I wish we had taken a chance with modern hexcrawl horror, or whatever that first guy had in mind.

ReMemorex is: a very lightweight RPG (normally a big plus with me) with a weird overly-meta frame story. You are apparently cleaning your attic, or something like that, and you find a whole bunch of VHS tapes containing cheesy 80's genre fare, and you're both in the film but also, occasionally, the person watching it. At least that's how it was explained - I never felt like I was that guy in the attic even when the meta-mechanics came into play. I'll get to all that.

Like I said, I love rules-light, but a problem with ReMemorex is that it still feels clunky. Every character picks three traits, representing core things you are good at. You get three dice pools - four, six and eight dice - and you assign each of them to one of these traits. Next, for each trait you have to split its pool in two - one "active" and one "passive." We didn't get much deeper than that, but we learned that your highest active pool becomes your initiative and your highest passive is your perception. We never got into combat, so that's all I got.

Now, this may sound elegant at first blush, but if you think about it for a few seconds, several problems emerge. First: what the hell is "active" and "passive"? Our GM explained active as what you can do and passive as what you know. But not every trait lends itself to this kind of split, so it's hard to figure out what the passive form of "fix every problem with a wrench" would be (that's a trait my character had).

Second of all, there is no fallback default pool value; any time you roll, you must identify an appropriate trait. This is awkward for two reasons. First, you will definitely do something that requires a roll and is a poor match for any of your traits. Second, this usually means that the GM has to adjudicate what trait you should use (and whether it's active or passive) for the majority of rolls. This is unacceptably slow for a rules-light system! Imagine the GM stopping to check each character sheet in turn when you're trying to jump across a gap.

Remember that I mentioned meta-mechanics? As far as we were told, ReMemorex has exactly one mechanic that relates to that weird framing story I described: the tracking error. Warning: this is lame. The way a tracking error works is that once per scene that your character isn't present for, you can pick up a bunch of dice, clatter them pointlessly, and announce a "tracking error." Yes, you are really encouraged to roll the dice here, but you don't actually use what comes up for anything.

There are four type of tracking errors, and they all allow the player to author some changes in the scene. You can: create a complication, help a party member, assume the role of an NPC or simply add an innocuous detail that nobody in the scene actually sees. For the latter, these details are seen by whoever is watching the "movie," meaning they act as a completely pointless kind of foreshadowing. But foreshadowing of what? How could you, the player, possibly know what to foreshadow?

Some people will instinctively react against this OOC storygaming mechanic, and it's warranted, but maybe not for the usual reasons. An important aspect of the tracking error is that the GM can veto it if it breaks the story, so there are limits on narrative authoring by the players. That's reassuring, but in practice, what it means is that the players can only add color to the scene without actually having any effect. Our GM overruled at least two tracking errors at our table, including a chance for a player to assume the role of a colorful immigrant handyman at our summer camp. I successfully submitted two errors, but they didn't have any significant effect.

I get the objective here. The tracking error is supposed to be allow the party to split up without creating a lot of idle downtime. But it's pointless! You can't really change anything. I think this is a cute gimmick that could work during a convention one-off, but if you're playing this week after week, it would grow stale very fast. On the other hand, giving the players real power to rewrite the narrative would be even less desirable to me. So this one's a dud.

In summary, the mechanics kind of suck. At least for my purposes. I would never use them.

The adventure itself was more of a mixed bag. This came down to the GM for the most part. There was plenty of railroading, which I can partly excuse in a convention setting, although some of it was patently ridiculous. For instance, our party of middle schoolers found a treasure map, but the GM informed us that we knew of only two kids who could read maps. That was dumb of many levels. First of all, half our party were nerdy kids, so they should have gotten a roll to see if any of them had the expertise. Second, I'm not sure a special map reading skill was needed; the map includes the nearby lake in good detail, so I think it would not be hard to work off that shoreline. Third, we approached the potential navigators to find out that the first kid really couldn't read maps. So there was only one quantum map-reader who could help? Magnificent!

There were other bits of railroading, and plenty of red herrings and pointless sub-quests, like when the GM suggested we needed to steal food from the kitchen for our expedition but it never came up again. Different genre elements was inelegantly mashed together, and the resolution was so confusing that we would not have understood the significance of our decisions had we actually been given choices. It was a real mess.

The one thing that the GM did really well were the characterizations. The NPCs were memorable and interesting, and very appropriate to the genre of 80's summer camp movies. I remarked to my companions that the session would have been about 200x better if the GM had made it a very typical summer camp situation with a few genre-appropriate antagonists and clueless adults, and just cut us loose. We would have definitely gotten up to some hijinks. GMs: trust your players! After all, they are birthing the story, right?

As an epilogue, I went out and purchased the adventure to see what the GM had been working from. It's...dire. You can find Summer of Arowak on DriveThru, but I wouldn't. It's over 100 pages, but most of those pages (except the last twelve) are a freaking novelization of the adventure itself. The actual adventure is at the end of the book. This is beyond indulgent. The text of the adventure doesn't do a good job of telling the GM what's going on and all the usual adventure stuff. I don't think you can run it without reading the novella! I did see references to some of the dumber parts of what happened at the table, so I can't blame the GM for anything other than choosing to run the damn thing.

Did I have fun? Actually, I had a lot of fun. But I also had fun eating lunch that day with our crew. The fun had more to do with the company and the mood. I was totally open to trying what the game was attempting to do, but it just didn't work for me. Amusingly, and even a little embarrassingly, I walked out of the game perfectly content, but Baulderstone's friend, the utter neophyte, immediately began poking holes in all the problem. What was impressive is that she didn't know any of the terminology like railroading and long read-alouds, but she hit all the things that veteran players would point out. Well, most veteran players. I had to reflect a little, apparently.

So by all mean, go to conventions and try games outside your comfort zone. But make sure you have good company, because they might suck. And don't bother with ReMemorex.
 
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Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Agents of Concordia


Introduction

The name's Davenport. I review games.

So the other day it was pretty nice out, so I had the window in my office open. I shoulda known I'd end up lettin' bugs in that way, but I didn't expect a 24" winged bug-man thingy in a black business suit and shades carryin' an RPG rulebook. (That was pretty impressive, since it was a full-size rulebook that coulda smashed the bug good and flat.)

The little critter flies over to my desk, drops off the book, then flits over to the chair.

"Hello!" he says. "I've been sent on a dangerous mission to deliver you this review copy of Agents of Concordia!"

"Uh-huh," I says. "Is this a game about playin' sharp-dressed bugs?"

"I am a Phyllia, not a 'bug'," the uppity bug says. "And no, the game is not just about playing my species. It is about playing secret agents of many different species, including your own, defending a magical multiverse from terrible danger in an alternate 1960s."

"Fantasy spies, eh?" I says. "I can get behind that. Okay, yer on. Now you'd better hurry up and fly back out the window before anyone sees you."

"Why?"

"Someone's liable to call the SWAT team."

Agents of Concordia the Roleplaying game project video thumbnail



Substance

Setting

It's 1964 on Earth, and on the surface, everything is perfectly normal.

It turns out, however, that the dimension we know is just one of many, and many of these worlds are members of a commonwealth known as Concordia. For its part, Earth sits at one end of the multiverse, one step away from the Singularity, the source of Aether, the stuff of magic. At the other end of the multiverse sits Artifex, the gateway to the Primal Dimensions, home to horrible monsters of all descriptions known as Vagrants -- creatures that would like nothing more than to ravage their way to Earth and the Singularity.

The players are agents of Concordia Central Intelligence (CCI), a sort of magical Men in Black organization who deal with threats to the multiverse.

The book describes 15 different worlds in loving detail. The only real problem I have with the descriptions is that they don't really convey the tech levels of these worlds aside from that of Helix, home to advanced computers, holograms, and automatons.

Magic generally takes the form of rituals and enchanted items. The book offers a number of the latter -- including the Necronomicon! -- that agents can check out from the agency's armory, but I was disappointed to find rituals completely absent except for the Rituals skill itself. That strikes me as a fairly major omission, given how magic-rich the book tells us that the worlds of Concordia are.

Bestiary

The book features a respectable collection of 22 creatures, from the lowly Average Joe to the apocalyptic Herald of Devastation. In addition, two entries are actually templates -- one for large beasts, one for small beasts. Many of the creatures display the author's great creativity, such as the Noise, a living audible signal that spreads like a literal earworm. Unfortunately, some of the entries lack sufficient description -- the Whaleruss, which lacks any physical description aside from its great size, is a prime example.

System

Character Creation

Characters have six attributes ("Basic Abilities" in AoC parlance) rated from -6 to +6: Constitution, Dexterity, Focus, Wisdom, Wits, and Charisma. The 30 skills, rated from 1-3, are quite broad, as befits a cinematic game -- Melee Weapons, for example, covers all hand-to-hand weapons.

Characters also have Perks -- aspects of the characters that provide Support (see below) in certain circumstances (e.g., when you're an Animal Lover interacting with animals) as well as some special abilities (e.g., Amphibian lets the character breathe underwater).

Interestingly, character creation in this game doesn't involve point-based selections. Instead, base scores in attributes come from the character's species, as do some initial Perks. Then, the selection of the character's background, basic training, and career with the CCI provide modifiers to attributes and skills as well as additional Perks. With 15 backgrounds, 20 species, and 10 careers, there's plenty of room for players to create the characters they want without the need to juggle points.

The species themselves are just as exotic as the worlds in which they live and are described just as well. I can't really do the species descriptions justice, except to say that all of them are unique to this setting (with the possible exception of Automatons and, of course, Humans).

Task Resolution

Players roll a number of d12s equal to their characters' skill, take the highest, and add the attribute score, attempting to beat a target number. Easy enough.

The skills aren't hard-linked to a specific attribute, allowing for some creativity on the part of the players when it comes to resolving problems. The text helpfully offers a number of attribute/skill combinations that might prove useful in a variety of situations.

Difficulty level is reflected in Supports and Cripples, which add a flat +3 or -3 to the attempt, respectively. The text warns GMs to beware of going overboard on Supports and Cripples, since a single Support or Cripple can make or break a roll. Accordingly, these modifiers are only applied when the circumstances significantly affect the attempt. I like the simplicity here, but I think it may be a little on the coarse side. For example, climbing equipment might add a +3 to a climbing effort, but +6 would probably be too much to reflect particularly good climbing equipment.

For each factor of the target number the roll beats, the attempt earns a Success Level. Success Levels, in turn, may be spent on four different effects:

  • A positive Story Effect.
  • A Support on a subsequent roll for the PCs or their allies.
  • A Cripple on a subsequent roll for an enemy.
  • Additional damage in combat equal to the weapon's static damage level.
I always like for success levels to matter, so this is a major plus for me.

On the other hand, I find the Grit attribute, derived from Constitution, to be problematic. Grit affects the character's wound threshold and hand-to-hand combat damage. The problem is that it ranges from -1 to +1. That's it. In my opinion, that's not enough to reflect the might of really big, strong characters. (Or really tiny, weak characters, for that matter.)

Combat

Combat uses the same basic rules as does normal task resolution. The GM doesn't normally roll, as the NPC stats are expressed as target numbers. All PCs have a health score (hit points) of 6. Once those are gone, the players have to roll Constitution and the Endurance skill to stay conscious. In addition, PCs have a wound threshold of Grit + 3. If an attack exceeds that threshold in damage, the character receives a Wound Level for each time the damage exceeds the threshold. The player and GM get to decide the specific nature of the wounds. Apparently, the only way for a PC to die is to receive a Wound Level while unconscious, which, I suppose, goes along with the cinematic nature of the game.

Veterancy

AoC
includes its own version of meta-game Drama/Fate/Hero Points called Veterancy.

The only problem is that what they're used for isn't at all clear. The rules state that they may be spent to interrupt an action in combat and to make a Dexterity + Dodge roll an automatic 6, but the text also says that they may be spent to succeed at rolls that would otherwise fail. Does that mean a Veterancy point expenditure results in an automatic success? Do they instead grant a bonus to the roll? If so, how large? I'm really not sure.

Clearance Level

Agents start with a Clearance Level of 1 and will gain more levels as they complete missions. The agents in a group will pool their Clearance Levels to check out equipment from the CCI armory. I like the concept, but it looks problematic in practice due to the nature of the equipment and its costs -- a simple club has a Clearance Level of 1, for example.

Creature Stats

As previously mentioned, the GM doesn't normally roll for NPCs because their stats are presented as target numbers. To be specific, NPCs have pre-rolled scores for combat and non-combat actions. I see the value of streamlining in this manner, and certainly, it makes improvising NPC stats a breeze, but I think there may be a bit too much streamlining here. There's not an obvious way to know how strong, agile, or smart a creature is supposed to be -- it's all lumped into those two stats.

Adventure

The book includes a simple introductory adventure involving the agents making sure a seemingly idyllic island village is safe and stress-free for a very important person going into hiding there under the CCI's protection. The text describes the villagers in great detail, and it turns out the situation on the island isn't all that idyllic after all. The adventure includes a timeline of what will happen while the agents are there but otherwise leaves them to their own devices.

Players who aren't proactive may find this adventure frustrating, or even boring. The adventure assumes that the agents will do a great deal of interacting with the villagers, intervening when they discover trouble. And even the most proactive players may still feel let down by the relative lack of action -- with a few exceptions, violence will only occur if the agents screw something up.

Personally, I'd prefer a more high-octane introductory adventure, but players who thrive on roleplaying should be happy.

Style

The full-color art is top-notch throughout the book, ranging from good to outstanding. The otherworldly cityscape on the cover is simply stunning.

The writing is both accessible and evocative, and the layout is attractive and fairly easy on the eyes. I didn't notice any major typos. The book includes a thorough index.

Conclusion

The premise of Agents of Concordia is remarkably creative and loaded with potential. The core mechanic is simple and transparent. However, I think the core book strongly needs a supplement to fill in some of the setting gaps, particularly in the areas of technology and magic. Don't get me wrong: It's fully playable as-is with a bit of creativity on the part of the GM, but I can't help but feeling that such creativity will paint GMs into a corner when they try to fill in the gaps themselves and later discover that the setting has been developed in a different direction.

So, should you get this game? If the premise I've described appeals to you, absolutely. It may take a wee bit of creative elbow grease, but the end result -- the adventures of magical dimension-hopping secret agents -- looks to be a whole lot of fun.
 

Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Black Void


Introduction

The name's Davenport. I review games.

So the other day I answer a knock at the door, and I see... something. Whatever it was, it had green scales, a beak, four purple eyes, and three legs.

"Hello!" it says.

"Uh... hi," I says. "What are you supposed to be? Or do I want to know?"

"What do you mean by that?" he says, gettin' all huffy. "I'm a human being, same as you!"

I raise an eyebrow.

"Well, okay, not quite like you," he confesses. "Mom... wasn't from around here."

"You don't say," I says. "So what can I do for you?"

"Oh!" he says. "I'm here with a review copy of Black Void, a game of dark fantasy and Lovecraftian horror. In Earth's distant past, a supernatural calamity casts humanity adrift across an alien-filled universe in which they're the lowest of the low."

"Well, that sounds real cheery," I says.

"I did say that it's dark fantasy," he points out.

"Fair point," I admit. "Fine, I'll give it a go. I'll let you know when the review's done."

"Great!" he says. "I'll keep three eyes out for it."

Black Void RPG project video thumbnail



Substance

Setting

This setting is really, really weird, and I'm only going to be able to scratch the surface of it without going down the proverbial rabbit hole. Your understanding is appreciated!

This is radically alternate history of a sort. At the height of ancient Babylon's power, a Lovecraftian disaster of global proportions sucks every man, woman, and child on the planet into the sky and scatters them all across an uncaring Cosmos.

As it turns out, the universe is divided into two aspects. There's the Cosmos, which is the physical world, and then there's the Void, a kind of dark, swirling chaos filled with Lovecraftian beasts, some of them completely nameless.

The Cosmos is filled with planets, many inhabited. The book offers comprehensive coverage of the possible environmental aspects of these planets, including atmosphere, gravity, climate, and geology. In this respect, the game almost seems like sci-fi rather than dark fantasy, although it most certainly is the latter. The variations of each aspect all have game system effects.

In addition, planets fall into the categories of non-enlightened, enlightened, and Void worlds, depending upon the degree to which the world and its inhabitants interact with the Void. Non-enlightened worlds have yet to achieve "first contact" with the Cosmos at large, enlightened worlds are familiar with Void travel, and Void worlds are actually on the border of the Void, if not fully within it.

Travel between worlds is accomplished via Void rifts. Experienced travelers know how to enter a Void rift, navigate the currents of the Void, and arrive at another planet through the Void rift on the other side. This travel normally involves special ships designed to minimize the passengers' experience of the Void's maddening properties and takes a tiny fraction of the time non-Void travel. In this, it resembles Warhammer 40K's Warp.

While the book features a list of nine worlds, the focus of the setting -- for now, at least -- rests very much on the city of Llyhn, a massive hub of Cosmic trade sitting on a Void-bordering world. Ruled by the mysterious Unseen Rulers and adhering to a strict caste system, the city receives detailed descriptions of its various neighborhoods, factions, noteworthy individuals, and multiple plot hooks. The only difficulty I have with this excellent section is that humans are, for the most part, the lowest of the low castes and as such are not allowed in a great many places within the city. Such travel can be accomplished with subterfuge but is extremely risky. Mind you, this befits the setting's nature completely. I just regret that it's somewhat unlikely that the PCs will see some of the city's more opulent precincts.

Overall, the setting is very Mesopotamian, which seems a bit odd on the face of it, but it's no stranger than other space-based settings with a Medieval European feel.

Powers

Humans may obtain two supernatural powers in Black Void: Blood rituals and mysticism.

Blood rituals, as the name suggests, involve the sacrifice of a living creature -- the more powerful, the better. This is done to either temporarily enhance one's own body or else for divination purposes. In the case of enhancements, as ritualists increase in skill, they gain more control over the otherwise random results. In the case of divination, an increase in skill allows for more specific questions. In either case, more skill results in more rituals allowed per day. These abilities aren't particularly powerful, but anyone can learn to use them, and they certainly fit the brutal nature of the setting.

Mysticism, by contrast, is truly powerful and may only be obtained by those somehow affected by the Void. Mysticism is divided into the Spheres of Forces, Life, Matter, Mind, and Void. Effects are usually improvised using a list of criteria, although a mystic may specialize in repeated effects for greater ease of use. Mystics come in two types based upon how they access their powers: Furores, who tap their emotions to produce wild and dangerous displays of power, and Gnostics, who use cold intellect to create less potent but more controlled effects. I really like this aspect of the setting. My only regret is that the nature of mysticism precludes the presence of dangerous Lovecraftian tomes of magical lore.

Furthermore, as PCs gain epiphanies about the nature of reality, the Cosmos, and the Void, they gain abilities to manipulate the Void for a variety of effects, from manifesting an awe-inspiring halo to navigating the Void to ripping a hole from the Cosmos to the Void. Representing the transitioning of an individual to a higher state of being, this perfectly fits with the themes of the setting.

In addition, there are at least two powers that humans can't possess themselves but that they can purchase: Blood Inking and Grafting. Both involve the sacrifice of beings -- the former to use their blood in mystical tattoos, the latter to use their body parts to replace those of the beneficiary and thereby gain some of the powers of the sacrifice (a sort of horrific cybertech). I find both of these wonderfully creepy and unsettling.

Bestiary

Black Void
divides creatures into four categories:

  • Sentient Species: Self-aware beings of the Cosmos (16 entries).
  • Esoteric Species: Powerful god-like beings not bound by the laws of the Cosmos (8 entries).
  • Beasts: Non-sentient creatures of the Cosmos (13 entries).
  • Void Entities: Bizarre creatures from beyond the Cosmos (7 entries).
Each entry gets full game stats, and details on the creature's physical form, life-cycle, habitat or society, frequency of occurrence, behavior, diet, status, the probable nature of encounters, and the combat tactics the creature will use.

Most of these beings defy easy description, with the possible exception of certain esoteric species like the Lamassu that visited the Earth before the great disaster and became part of human mythology.

I really can't praise this section highly enough for its portrayal of truly alien aliens, in both mind and body. I mean, these things are really weird.

System

Character Creation

Black Void
uses a strictly point-based character creation system.

All player characters in Black Void are human... sort of. PCs come in three varieties:

  • Purebloods: Completely human.
  • Halfbloods: Humans crossed with a sentient alien species. These characters may possess Attributes -- physical abilities related to their alien heritage.
  • Voidmarked: Humans crossed with sentient esoteric species or otherwise strongly affected by the Void. These characters may take both Attributes and esoteric Attributes, the latter being abilities that are more supernatural in nature. They are also the only type of human capable of starting the game with mysticism.
The book provides a great number of both Attributes (such as horns, tentacles, and wings) and esoteric Attributes (such as possession, shapeshifting, and reincarnation). I like the way in which this setup keeps the focus on humanity while allowing for outlandish characters for players who wish to play them.

Characters may come from one of eight types of homeworld broadly grouped into three categories: Non-Enlightened Worlds, Enlightened Worlds, and Void Worlds. Each type of homeworld provides a few benefits.

PCs have eight Traits: Agility, Awareness, Stamina, Strength, Intellect, Persuasion, Presence, and Willpower. Traits range from 0-12, although the human range is 1-5 with 3 being average. I'm fine with the large number of Traits, considering the many ways the exotic species of Black Void can vary. I'm not as big of a fan of the hard universal cap of 12, but given the gap between the human maximum and the universal maximum, it's by no means a deal-breaker.

Oddly, the actual dice roll modifier differs from the Trait value; for example, a Strength of 5 provides a modifier of +2. I don't really see the advantage to adding another layer of values to the system.

What does make a remarkable amount of sense to me is the manner in which the game handles Talents (advantages) and Flaws. All Talents and Flaws are associated with specific Traits. Characters are able to take a Talent for every 3 points they have in the associated Trait, and they may earn more character creation points by taking a Flaw for a Trait of 3 or less, the severity of which can increase with the Trait's decreasing score. In this way, noteworthy aspects of the characters only show up in characters with noteworthy (or at least average) Traits. I like that a lot.

I would say that the skills are moderately specific, particularly in terms of weapon skills. The latter don't drill down to specific weapons, but they do fall along weapon categories like axes, blade weapons, blunt weapons, flexible weapons, and polearms. I'm okay with that.

The system takes a middle road between skills being hard-linked to specific Traits and skills being usable with any Trait. Instead, each skill has one or more Traits which might conceivably apply to the skill. Characters may purchase specializations for every three points in a skill.

Other noteworthy stats include Health ((Stamina x 6) + 1d12), Sanity ((Willpower x 6) + 1d12), and Wastah. The latter measures the character's power of influence -- not his social status, but rather his clout. I'm no anthropologist, but this certainly feels Mesopotamian.

I also really like the appearance tables for the halfbloods and Voidmarked. These can result in some truly freaky-looking individuals.

Task Resolution

The game uses a simple Trait modifer + skill + 1d12 vs. difficulty rating mechanic. A roll of 1 is a critical failure and a roll of 12 is a critical success, unless the difficulty is 12 or higher. In the latter case, the player rolls the 1d12 a second time and adds the two die rolls together to get the result. The player will only score a critical success if the second die comes up 12.

I like the basic mechanic just fine, but I'm never a fan of flat chances for critical failures and successes -- in particular, because certain effects in this game only take place on a critical success. I prefer criticals to be a matter of character ability, not random chance. When discussing this with the author, he suggested making a critical success the difficulty rating + 5. I much prefer that option.

Combat

When making an attack, the difficulty value is the Defense Value of the target, which is 7 plus the Agility modifier, the Defense skill, and shield modifiers.

Damage is randomized based on weapon type, with the Strength modifier applied to melee damage. Armor reduces damage. Critical successes call for a roll on the Exceptional Hits table, which can result in extra damage in addition to a number of increasingly stomach-churning effects. In addition, combatants losing half of their total starting Health points in a single hit suffer a random crippling injury. All of this potential carnage suits the grim setting perfectly.

Rather than falling back on the tired old "I swing", Black Void offers up a plethora of combat maneuvers -- movement, offensive, defensive, and miscellaneous. If anything, it's an embarrassment of riches. I don't think I could keep track of them all in the heat of battle, but it's certainly nice to know that they're available.

Sanity

Also suiting the setting are the rules for mental damage. Far from the one-dimensional sanity loss of Call of Cthulhu, the myriad bizarre beings and situations encountered in Black Void can cause awe, delirium, fear, and, of course, madness. The system includes specific rules and tables for each of these.

Equipment

The book features a truly expansive equipment section, including everything from exotic pets and mounts to scribe and physician tools. Of particular interest are the wide variety of customized features available for weapons: Extended shafts, hook blades, poison grooves, saw edges, wave pattern blades, you name it, each with their own mechanical effects. Armor may likewise be customized to a lesser extent. Furthermore, characters have the option of purchasing weapons and armor of varying qualities, which makes perfect sense for a game featuring a down-on-its-luck humanity. Great stuff.

The only real complaint I have about this section is the fact that it includes a gorgeous selection of exotic mounts but doesn't provide game stats for them.

Style

The full-color art is, simply put, outstanding. Some of it is a bit impressionistic, which befits the dreamlike/nightmarish feel of the setting. The rest is in disturbingly sharp focus, which is a good thing, because I honestly don't know if I'd be capable of describing some of the beings in this setting. Yes, it really is that weird.

The text is as easy to follow as it can be, given the wildly exotic subject matter. I'm very thankful that it avoids any anachronistic language that would spoil the mood. The in-game fiction is used sparingly and remains of good quality throughout the book.

The layout is attractive and highly legible, even given the parchment-like background and ornate borders. No typos stood out to me. Given the complex nature of the setting, I am happy to report that the book includes a detailed glossary, table of contents, and index.

My biggest complaint would have to be the overall organization of the book, which puts the system before the setting. The result is a lot of context-free references to things with weird names that aren't explained until you get to the setting information.

Conclusion

My only real concern about this remarkable setting is that I fear it may be too exotic for me to run. I mean, it's just so creative, exotic, and weird that I'm not sure I'd be able to do it justice. As for the system, aside from the issue I have with critical fumbles and successes, it looks great.

Let's be honest: This is very much a niche game. Ordinarily, I'd recommend Black Void to fans of similar games, but I don't know that there are similar games out there, except perhaps for Call of Cthulhu's Dreamlands setting. That being the case, I can only recommend it more broadly to fans of dark fantasy -- in particular, dark fantasy with a Lovecraftian feel. In that respect, I cannot recommend this game highly enough. It is one of the most unique and well-realized settings that I have ever encountered.
 

Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Talislanta: the Savage Land


Introduction

The name's Davenport. I review games.

So the other day I hear a loud knock at my office door. When I answer it, I see a great big bald pointy-eared bruiser covered from head to foot in tattoos and carryin' a big whoppin' two-handed sword. So right off the bat, I have him pegged as a Thrall -- a magically-bred warrior from the fantasy game Talislanta. Yes sir, there's only one thing that looks like a Thrall, and that's a Thrall.

"Hello," he says. "I'm a Vandar."

...

"Okay..." I says. "Well, you sure look like a Thrall to me."

"Ah," he says, "That is because the Vandar are the ancestors of the Thralls."

"Ancestors? Okay, that makes sense then. What brings you by today?"

"I am here with a review copy of Talislanta: the Savage Land."

"You're speakin' my language. I love me some Talislanta. What's the 'Savage Land' bit, though?"

"The Savage Land is Talislanta's distant past," he says, "shortly after the Great Disaster that laid waste to the world."

"Post-apocalyptic Talislanta?" I says. "Okay, you've got my interest."

"Excellent," he says. "But just in case, I have brought you this..."

He dumps a big bag of gold coins and gems on my desk.

"That's... a lot more than I usually get for a reviewing gig," I says, eyein' the pile of goodies.

"Such things are worthless to us in the Savage Land," he says. "All that matters is survival."

"Well then!" I says, sweepin' the loot into my desk drawer, "What we need around this place is a lot more survivin'."

233187.jpg




Substance

Setting

Because Talislanta: the Savage Land is a prequel game, you can't really understand what it's all about without knowing what Talislanta itself is all about. To that end, I highly recommend the excellent Talislanta FAQ at www.talislanta.com, where, incidentally, you can find free legal PDFs of every Talislanta product that exists except for this one. However, not wishing to completely shirk my duties as a reviewer, I'll give you an overview myself.

Talislanta is a very non-traditional fantasy setting that's been around in various forms since 1987, featuring no humans, orcs, dwarves, or, as the promotional material is eager to tell you, elves (although there are numerous elf-like species, in my opinion). In fact, the only nod to "normal" fantasy settings is the presence of demons, devils, and dragons. The place is full of exotic nations and peoples, many of which have a vaguely Middle Eastern, vaguely dream-like feel, not unlike those found in H.P. Lovecraft's The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Magic is a powerful force that's omnipresent. I have often described the place as looking like a 1970s Yes album cover. It's a world full of wonder and beauty.

So, what is Talislanta: the Savage Land?

Well, in Talislanta's distant pass, an event occurred descriptively known as the Great Disaster, laying low the preexisting mighty nations, wiping away all knowledge of magic beyond the simplest of rituals and superstitions, and leaving only scattered tribes struggling for survival in the trackless wastes. This is the Savage Land: a dark, gritty swords-and-sorcery setting -- well, without the sorcery -- as a counterpart to "normal" Talislanta's much brighter high fantasy.

The book describes 11 PC species, 12 NPC species and 45 monsters, as well as a section on Savage Land flora -- a highly respectable menagerie. Many of these beings are, naturally, the distant ancestors of those found in "modern" Talislanta -- some more obvious than others.

It also features vividly bleak descriptions of eight territories, from the burning sands of the Black Desert to the mutant plants and creatures of the Junglelands, each with its own extensive random encounter tables. Given the lawless nature of the setting and the wandering the PCs are likely to do, these tables are ideal.

Of particular note is the Gyre, a vast perpetual magical maelstrom that warps time, space, and anything else it touches -- a threat that could strike anywhere in the Savage Land. In addition, the section describes five different sorts of ruins that wandering PCs may come across, providing interesting places to explore as a break from constantly scrounging in the wilderness.

The equipment section deserves a special mention. There is no currency in the Savage Land -- coins and shiny rocks have no value. (Silver is the one exception, since demons are vulnerable to silver weapons.) Accordingly, the section starts out with lists of simple raw materials and trade goods. On the opposite end of the scale, the powerful magic items of the fallen Archaen civilization might be discovered, including runeswords, magic wands, and the 200' tall robot-like siege golems.

System

The game comes in three rules variants: the original Talislanta rules, D&D 5th edition, and D6 (West End Games' Star Wars, et al). Here, I'll be covering the original version.

Character Creation

As is the case with most of the previous incarnations of Talislanta, character creation is, for the most part, a simple matter of selecting an archetype from the list of PC species, with many species offering more than one archeype.

The species:

  • Drakken: 10' tall dragon-men.
  • Imazi: Tall, slender nomadic hunter-gatherers.
  • Kasir: Desert traders and tomb-robbers.
  • Narada: 7' tall primitive plant people.
  • Reavers: Wiry wasteland scavengers and bandits.
  • Shaka: Leoninef hunters.
  • Shan: Proud golden-skinned swordsmen.
  • Vandar: A magically-created all-male warrior race.
  • Viragos: A magically-created all-female warrior race.
  • Warloks: Soulless assassins and wizard-hunters.
  • Yann: Short armadillo-like builders and engineers.
It is important to note that these races aren't even remotely balanced against each other. In particular, Drakken and Vandar characters are likely to dominate a group, especially given the lack of magic to counter these powerful physical specimens.

Talislanta: the Savage Land features a small fraction of the choices found in other editions; accordingly, the game allows for slightly more customization than do the other editions except for 5th. Specifically, players get three points to increase attributes however they wish. (This does not apply to Vandar characters, all of whom are exact duplicates of each other.)

Speaking of attributes, those found in the game are Intelligence, Will, Perception, Charisma, Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Speed. These abilities start at zero and expand outward in either direction. (Since there are no "baseline" creatures like humans, there isn't really an average score or an attribute range.) Hit Points are a matter of the species average as it appears on the archetype added to the individual's Constitution score.

Note that unlike in recent editions, Talislanta: the Savage Land does not include a Combat Rating or a Magic Rating. Since there is no magic system, there is no need for the latter, and the various combat skills fall under either Dexterity or Dexterity + Strength. I generally prefer this method, but only slightly.

I do find it odd that some skills fall under one attribute, others under two, however. I'd prefer some consistency there.

Skills are moderately specific. Every sort of weapon is its own skill, for example, even when the skills would seem to be related -- short bow and Shaka longbow, for example.

Given the nature of the setting, I appreciate the extra attention the skills section pays to the Survival and Barter skills.

As mentioned previously, only primitive magic rituals remain in the setting. These all take the form of Willpower-based skills:

  • Commune with Animals
  • Commune with Plants
  • Commune with Spirits
  • Concoct Potions
  • Create Charms & Talismans
  • Create Totem
  • Curse/Remove Curse
  • Influence Emotions
  • Primitive Enchantment
That last one is of particular importance, since there are many creatures in the setting that are impervious to non-silver, non-magical weapons.

Task Resolution

The core game mechanic hasn't changed appreciably from previous editions of Talislanta. It's an attribute + skill +/- target number system. Once these figures are added together, the result is added to the roll of 1d20 and compared to the following table:

  • O or less: Critical Failure
  • 1-5: Failure
  • 6-10: Partial Success
  • 11-19: Success
  • 20 or more: Critical Success
That one mechanic runs the whole game. It's simple, transparent, and slick. Note, however, that with a negative modifier, you can never get a Critical Success, and with a positive modifier, you can never get a Critical Failure. That could be a feature or a bug, depending up on your point of view. However, a roll of 1 is always some kind of failure and a roll of 20 is always some kind of success. I'm neutral on that one. I'd be a lot less happy if the chance of a Critical Failure or Success were purely random.

Combat

Combatants roll 1d6 + Speed for initiative and resolve attacks using the table above with the difference between combat skills as a modifier. Damage is by weapon die type with a Strength modifier for hand weapons. Armor reduces damage. Partial Successes do half damage; Critical Successes do double damage and force the victim to make a Constitution roll to deal with a critical wound. Depending upon the quality of this roll, the wound could have no effect, give the victim a penalty, incapacitate him, or leave him in dying. This mechanic can result in truly brutal results between mismatched opponents, which seems fitting for the grim-and-gritty setting. My only quibble is that the Constitution roll bears no relation to the amount of damage done in the attack, but perhaps that would be too brutal.

Mass Actions and Mass Combat

It may seem like an odd addition to this particular edition of Talislanta, given its focus on tribes rather than nations and armies, but the book includes rules for actions and combats involving large numbers of participants.

In both cases, the mechanic revolves around adding up the overall advantages possessed by each side rather than around the individual abilities of the participants. (It does, however, give bonuses for the presence of particularly powerful individuals.) Once the advantages are added up, the total is added to a d20 roll and compared to the standard task resolution table.

In the case of mass combat, the task resolution table gets a slight tweak:

  • O or less: Critical Failure -- routed with 50% casualties; survivors must roll to avoid capture or death
  • 1-5: Failure -- defeated with 25% casualties; roll leader's Renown or lose all advantages next round
  • 6-10: Stalemate -- 25% casualties on both sides and combat continues
  • 11-15: Partial Success -- 25% casualties inflicted and +1 advantage next round
  • 16-19: Success -- 25% casualties inflicted; roll leader's Renown or lose all advantages next round
  • 20 or more: Critical Success -- enemy routed with 50% casualties inflicted; survivors must roll to avoid capture or death
I haven't had a chance to put this mechanic to the test yet, but to someone like myself without the time or inclination to run the minutia of a full-scale battle, it appears to be pretty simple and effective.

Style

The full-color art in this book differs quite a bit from the elegant drawings of PD Breeding-Black that gave Talislanta its original look. That difference is very much one of style and not of quality, however. The images are uniformly gorgeous but generally melancholy, most showing scenes either at night or under an overcast sky. Combined with the "ruined parchment" motif of the text background and margins, the overall effect might best be described as "oppressive"... which, I'm sure, is exactly what was intended. It certainly feels like it suits the setting, at any rate.

The writing is likewise moody but informative, presenting both the rules and the setting clearly and efficiently. The relatively open layout counters the darkness of the art, keeping the oppressive feel from making the text unpleasant to read.

Unfortunately, the book lacks an index, but the comprehensive table of contents does a decent job of making up for this.

Conclusion

This is a very high-quality and beautiful game that really does provide you with everything you need to play in the dark past of Talislanta. Some of the rules may strike fans of recent editions of the original setting as steps backward, such as rolled rather than fixed weapon damage, but such things are very easily house-ruled.

Quite frankly, the only "negative" thing I can say about this game is that for my tastes, the setting is a bit too good at being bleak and depressing. It may sound silly, but even though I know this is a prequel and not a sequel, I found myself thinking wistfully of the vibrant, colorful "modern" Talislanta setting while reading the rulebook and feeling sad to see the place reduced to such a sorry state. In fact, Savage Land sent me running back to the original game for a new campaign.

Now, that's just me. If a bleak low-magic post-apocalyptic fantasy setting sounds remotely appealing to you, then you owe it to yourself to check this game out. I don't know of a better game to scratch that particular itch.
 

Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Dark Times (superheroes + cyberpunk)


Introduction

The name's Davenport. I review games.

So the other day a superhero flies through the window into my office. Cape, boots, underwear on the outside, the works. The fella even had a logo on his chest: "CP".

"Hey," he says, "You Davenport?"

"Uh, yeah?" I says, kinda expecting him to call me "Citizen" or some-such.

"Review copy for ya," he says, dropping a book on my desk. "Dark Times," says the cover.

"Thanks, pal," I says. "Say, what's the 'CP' for? 'Captain Power'?"

"Chimera Pharmaceuticals," he says.

"Lousy superhero name," I says.

"It's a megacorporation, wise guy," he says. "Got my powers from'em."

"Megacorps makin' supers?" I says. "What kinda superhero game is this, anyway?"

"The cyberpunk kinda superhero game," he says. "Hence, the 'dark times' bit."

"Cyberpunk superheroes?" I says. "Now that's a heckuva mashup. This I gotta see."

"Good," he says. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to fly. People out there have to know how great Chimera Pharmaceuticals is!"

"But what do they call you?" I says.

"They call me... Spokesman."





Substance

Setting

At first glance, the world of Dark Times is a typical cyberpunk setting, insofar as there is such a thing: A near-future setting, a national government with little real power compared to the omnipresent megacorporations, a huge wealth gap between rich and poor, massive, bleak cityscapes, and, of course, cybernetics.

The big difference is the presence of the Enhanced.

In 2023, the physician founder of Prometheus Medical attempted to create genetically-altered superhumans. The subjects failed to manifest any superpowers, so the company went on to great success using nanotechnology instead. Then, a surprise: The children of the initial test subjects did manifest superpowers at the age of 16. Prometheus Medical scrambled to round up their "property", as did rival megacorps who had swiped the superhuman formula and had created superhumans of their own. So, you have some of these superhumans -- called the Enhanced -- working for megacorps, and some on the run or in hiding as "illegal" Enhanced. Some illegal Enhanced resist the status quo as part of the violent Evolved Liberation Army or the peace-focused Unity Coalition. Meanwhile, victims of failed superhuman experiments have become sewer-dwelling Mutants who are officially classified as non-humans and are treated accordingly, and nanotech-powered "Peacekeepers" mercilessly enforce the will of their megacorporate masters. And in the darkest (relatively speaking) regions of the sewers wait the Sewer Zombies, feral Mutants hungry for human flesh...

Adversaries

As anyone who's been paying attention can tell you, I love a good bestiary. Dark Times offers a relatively modest one that makes the most of the few entries in several key ways.

First, Adversaries come in three power levels: Thugs, Lieutenants, and Masterminds. Adversaries have their own selection of special abilities to use against the PCs. Some of these, like Automatic Hit, are usable by Adversaries of any power level. Others are available to specific power levels, like Strength in Numbers (Thugs) or Unnerving (Lieutenants and Masterminds).

And second, the book offers templates of various types of Adversaries, each with multiple variations. For example, given the availability of the Animal Control Hereditary Power, the section includes stats for animal swarms of four sizes -- 5, 20, 100, and 1,000 pounds -- each with four variations depending upon swarm composition: avian, aquatic, insects, or strays. Likewise, the section features both a "basic" Sewer Zombie as well as versions with variable attributes, skills, and mutations.

Of course, this being in part a superhero game, the section also presents several pre-generated Enhanced individuals as well.

One minor point: I'm a bit surprised that there aren't any robots described, since the tech level surely would support them. I'm told by the author that they'll be showing up soon, however.

Adventure

A group of Titan Security "Peacekeepers" backed up by some superhuman muscle raid a tenement building either occupied or visited by one of the PCs. They're dragging people off to test them for powers in the process of searching for a killer Mutant, holding hostages until the Mutant turns up. This will keep happening unless the PCs can catch the killer and turn him over to the "Peacekeepers".

As you might expect, the adventure involves plenty of investigation and interaction, but there are more than enough opportunities for violence. In fact, during the initial encounter, that could be a problem, not a feature: If the PCs present during the initial raid resist and are victorious, they'll be wanted, and if they lose, they'll be taken into custody, thereby derailing the adventure from the get-go. And at the other end of the adventure, a multi-sided fray may break out that could tax the skill and patience of the GM.

That aside, it's a nice, workmanlike adventure that should prove challenging to new PCs and introduce them to some of the moral conundrums they will face in the setting.

System

The game uses the same system featured in Wicked Pacts. I refer you to my review of that game for my thoughts on the core mechanics. Suffice it to say that the system has proved to be very simple, fast, and transparent in my experience.

Character Creation

One of the more unusual aspects of Dark Times character creation is the selection of a corporate DNA Strand -- the sign of corporate tampering with the character's genetic structure. Not all characters will have a corporate DNA Strand, and not all characters with a corporate DNA Strand will have powers, but all characters with powers will have a corporate DNA Strand. Each DNA Strand confers certain benefits; for example, those with the Prometheus Medical DNA Strand gain +1 to either Willpower or Health and automatically have the Fine Looks General Talent.

Furthermore, characters may be of three generations:

  • Generation 0: No genetic tampering. No powers.
  • Generation 1: The first generation to be genetically altered. Possibly a Mutant but not a superhuman with Hereditary Powers.
  • Generation 2: The offspring of Generation 1. May be a Mutant or have Hereditary Powers.
Players then make a series of rolls to develop their characters' backgrounds. I found this step to be handy in fleshing out my character, but it ended up making my initial character concept difficult -- I'd set out to create an Enhanced who was hiding out working as a lowly auto mechanic and ended up with him being the filthy rich son of corporate executives.

Eighteen points go into the six attributes of Strength, Health, Reflexes, Willpower, Charisma, and Intelligence, after which the player calculates the derived attributes.

Then we start getting to the really fun part -- the Archetypes. These cover most of the traditional superhero archetypes rather well

  • Blaster
  • Brick
  • Gun Bunny
  • Martial Artist
  • Mentalist
  • Mover (a.k.a "Speedster)
  • Mutant
  • Non-Powered
  • Odd Ball
  • Skulker
The only common superhero types not represented are the Gadgeteer and the Magician, neither of which would be a good fit for this setting, in my opinion.

Note that "Non-Powered" in this context simply means no Hereditary Powers or Mutations. Such a character can "super-up" with nanotech and/or cybernetics just fine. (Strangely, the text says in one place that Non-Powered can't take nanotech but in another place suggests that they can.) The "Odd Ball" is simply a powered hero who doesn't fit neatly into any other category.

Each Archetype comes with a selection of advantages called Talents, and players may pick from a list of General Talents as well. PCs get two Talents for free, with up to two more in exchange for taking Complications. The line between Talents and superpowers is a tad vague; for example, a Mover can take Accelerated Healing, and the General Talents include such abilities as Night Vision. Even the Non-Powered archetype gets some nigh-superhuman Talents; for example, Action Hero adds to Hit Points, improves accuracy in combat, and allows the player to declare any incoming attack a miss once per session.

One thing that struck me as odd: Some archetype Talents have prerequisites of Hereditary Powers or appropriate nanotech. This seems strange because it means that a character can be designed using an Enhanced Archetype without actually possessing Hereditary Powers, and it also means that, for example, a Non-Powered character and a Brick could possess identical nanotech-spawned strength but that only the Brick would have access to Brick Talents.

As in Wicked Pacts, PCs in Dark Times get a sizable number of points to spend on skills that pretty much hit my sweet spot in terms of specificity. For example, hand-to-hand combat is broken down into Blades, Brawling, Clubs, and Improvised Weapons. The only problem I experienced in play wasd that the appropriate Attribute to use with a given Skill wasn't always clear, and when the GM/author did specify which to use, it created some odd results. For example, I was told to use Reflexes for Brawling but Strength for Improvised Weapon, which meant my maxed-out Brick was far better off hitting his opponents with everything but the kitchen sink rather than simply punching them. This is, of course, trivial to fix if you consider it a problem.

The powers section, as you might imagine, is where the game really shines. I would go so far as to say that the game could work as a highly-passable generic superhero game of roughly the X-Men power level, so long as the aforementioned lack of gadgets and magic doesn't bother you.

Now, I really, really like the way that Hereditary Powers relate to Archetypes. You see, individual Hereditary Powers aren't limited to one Archetype. Instead, Hereditary Powers are available to a range of Archetypes, but at different maximum levels. For example, Martial Artists, Blasters, and Oddballs can all have Super Strength, but none of them will come close to the maximum Super Strength of a Brick. (And for the record, the strongest Brick can lift 25 tons, which, if my Marvel Universe knowledge doesn't fail me, makes such a Brick stronger than Spider-Man but weaker than Iron Man or Captain Marvel.)

The design of the Hereditary Powers is also right up my alley. Essentially, rather than using an effects-based system (e.g., Champions) and building powers from the ground up, the game takes more of the "cafeteria" approach (e.g., TSR's Marvel Superheroes). In practice, this generally means that you purchase a power like Weather Control whole-cloth rather than building it up by purchasing its (rather exhausting) range of effects. However, in Dark Times, taking Weather Control doesn't give a PC all of the permutations of the power as displayed by Storm of the X-Men. Instead, Weather Control simply lets a PC control the local weather conditions. Attacking a specific target with hail, lightning, or wind, or using a whirlwind for defense or flight, are all separate powers with a prerequisite of basic Weather Control.

Overall, I found dealing with Hereditary Powers to be a breeze. I knew I wanted a Hulk type, so I grabbed Armor, Super Leap, and Super Strength, and I was good to go. My PC may not have been nearly in the Hulk's league, but he was as close as I could get in this system.

The only Hereditary Power that I feel is missing is Super Reflexes. I spoke to the author about this, and he said that he had included it initially but had found it to be too powerful in playtesting. I can see that, I suppose, but with its absence, I don't think the game can do a very good job of simulating Spider-Man-like super-acrobats.

Now, Mutations are a different animal. They tend to be much more specific than Hereditary Powers and fall into Minor and Major categories. They are a grab-bag of psychic and physical abilities, many of which aren't visually apparent. Even many of the Minor and Major Negative Mutations that a PC may take to earn more points for beneficial abilities will be generally problematic without damning the character as a Mutant.

But such things as Armored Skin, Extra Limbs, Major Deformation, or (God help you) Conjoined Twin obviously will mark the character as a Mutant, and therefore not human in the eyes of the Powers That Be. I almost took the huge, brightly-colored pregen Mutant character in the book for the game in which I participated... until I realized that he'd basically be unable to show his face in public, thereby limiting the activities of the entire group by his presence. (Of course, he'd give the group an "in" with the sewer-dwelling Mutant community, but that will only get you so far.) For that reason, I would only recommend obvious Mutant characters for those who are after a real roleplaying challenge. If you prefer a more subtle X-Men type, you should be golden.

As was touched on previously, the powers section includes a wide variety of nanotech and cybertech. Most of these abilities are what you'd expect such technology to provide -- enhanced strength, speed, and healing, etc. -- although there are some more outlandish powers as well, such as the Hardlight Emitters (which project a physical barrier of light) and the COBRA Nanite Spray (which creepily fires a predatory nano-colony from the individual's wrist).

Hacking

Helping to illustrate the fact that this is just as much of a cyberpunk game as it is a superhero game, Dark Times features full rules for hacking computer networks. In fact, it features two versions of hacking.

The first is pretty much like "real world" hacking: Sitting at a computer trying to crack passwords, crash websites, raid databases, and so on. Safe but slow, and without the benefits of the other version...

...That other version being "Full-Dive" hacking: The "jacking in" to a full-sensory virtual reality that cyberpunk fans have come to know and love. In a Full-Dive, the hacker gains the benefits of greater speed and of bringing along helpful programs for everything from foiling intrusion countermeasures to protecting you in virtual combat. The bad news is that Full-Dive hacking puts the hacker in physical danger, as virtual combat can literally cook your brain.

I appreciate having both options. The only drawback I see is the same one I see with most cyberpunk hacking systems, and that is the fact that such hacking sends one character off on a mini-adventure, leaving the other characters with nothing to do. (Well, not unless the GM wishes to run action in two locations simultaneously.)

Style

This 310-page full-color rulebook uses artwork sparingly, but the art used is of excellent quality. The page borders with their light blue circuit board motif are also quite nice.

The writing is pleasantly accessible and generally clear, if not especially thematic. I noticed no major typos aside from an NPC's missing skill level, but I did find that one aforementioned confusing statement about Non-Powered heroes and nanotech.

The book is fairly well-organized. Regrettably, it lacks an index, but it does feature an extremely detailed table of contents.

Conclusion

I'm not a big fan of "pure" cyberpunk, but I do enjoy cyberpunk with a twist -- I always enjoyed Shadowrun's setting, if not the system, for example.

These days, I find myself feeling much the same way regarding superhero games: The standard sorts bore me, but add an interesting twist, and I'm all in.

So as you might imagine, this is an almost ideal game for me. It takes all the elements of cyberpunk and mixes them with most of the elements of superheroes to create something unique and fun. That wouldn't mean much if I didn't also enjoy the system, but I do, very much. It's easily understood, transparent, and, most importantly, fun.

Now, who would not like this game? Well, if you hate cyberpunk or superheroes of any sort, this probably isn't the game for you.

If you're a fan of one or the other, though, you should at least give this game a look. You might even find it usable for "normal" cyberpunk or supers.

And if you like both? This, my friend, is your game.
 

CT_Phipps

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4.5/5

LET THE STREETS RUN RED by Onxy Path Publishing is a collection of four Chronicles for Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition. It is a stretch goal from the 2018 Kickstarter for Chicago by Night 5th Edition, a book detailing the supernatural movers and shakers for the Windy City. Basically, for non-tabletop roleplaying gamers, it's a book of four adventures to play as vampires. I've been waiting for this book for a long time, specifically two years, and I'm extremely excited to finally get to dive into its complicated adventure hooks.

Obviously, you need a copy of Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition to run this book and it is set in the modern nights. Fans of previous editions of the game shouldn't have too much difficulty converting the adventures, though. The book makes mention of Touchstones, the Beckoning, and the Second Inquisition but none of these things are strictly essential for running any of the scenarios. Mortals that vampires care about, vampire hunters, and so on are all things that existed in prior editions after all.

The cities of Chicago and Milwaukee reflect changes to the setting but are these are not strictly rules base. Even the inclusion of the Ministry, formerly known as the Followers of Set, doesn't mean too much because this is still the Set-worshiping cult of evil version. Which is all a roundabout way of saying that people who don't like V5 might still get some benefit from picking this up. Even if you don't plan to set your game in the American Midwest, you can definitely use the NPCs and adventures as something to adapt for your home game.

The actual crunch in the book is somewhat limited but not absent either. There's some new Loresheets, some Blood Sorcery rituals, and a collection of interesting NPCs to spice up your chronicle. Fans of the original Forged in Steel characters from way back in 1st Edition will appreciate several of their characters make a return appearance. So do characters from Milwaukee by Night. Let the Streets Run Red is capable of being run as a series of four interlinked adventures but really they strike me as best run as standalone or separate Chronicles. There's no central villain or plotline like the One Ring to link them, just a general setting of the American Midwest. This is probably for the best as it's impressive the writers managed to account for as many roleplaying game possibilities as they did.

Indeed, one of the things that makes the book work is that it's actually like one adventure module and four mini-city books. It gives wide-open sandbox descriptions of haunted village Willerton, vampire police state Milwaukee, cult-ruled Indianapolis, and urban warzone Gary. In a real way, the book just presents the situation and characters before telling the players to do whatever comes naturally. This is probably the best way to make a World of Darkness adventure module.

Thoughts on individual sections:

Blood will Flow (fiction): The Wolf Pack continues to have a surprisingly robust life in fiction with this being a short story about how they were hunted by former Special Forces operative Duncan MacTavish. It has a surprisingly touching ending that reminds you that, sometimes, vampires do care about people other than themselves. I feel like it could have involved the Wolf Pack interacting more with the NPCs of the Chronicle and I would have especially loved seeing them deal with Walter Nash or Evelyn Stephens but you take what you can get.

Power Play (Chronicle): The player characters Touchstones are being blackmailed by someone who knows they're vampires. The players get recruited by Walter Nash, an eccentrically scummy Ventrue who is in the same boat, to track down the fool. My only regret is Walter is such an engaging character I really wished it was revealed he was behind the whole thing somehow. He really could be the next Lodin or La Croix with how much of an obnoxious yet charming ass he is. I feel like the ending could have used a bit more oomph too. Walter Nash is a lot more interesting an antagonist than "Redwood", who is the actual villain at the end and seems like a discount Jigsaw. Despite this, I loved the fact that it incorporates the Night's Cross from The Chicago Folio. They play only a small role in the chronicle but I hope they'll show up in future supplements as a Midwestern Society of Leopold. Despite my criticisms of the villain, this is probably the best of the Chronicles and the one I will adapt first to my home game.

The Dying Fields (Chronicle): The Children of the Corn, The Wicker Man (original only), and The Shadow over Innsmouth are all stories that depend on a central truism: small town people are evil. I can confirm this is true. We all worship ancient prehuman gods and commit acts of human sacrifice. The player characters find themselves trapped in a small town and, for once, aren't the biggest monsters around. I only wish they'd given some actual stats for the Harvest God, spoiling the mystery or not. I like the premise of this book but I honestly wonder if it will work with the fact the PCs are all horrifying superhuman monsters and the locals are mere mortal humans. Then again, the best part of Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines is the Oceanview Hotel that has you terrified by ghosts despite the fact you're a vampire. If I were to adapt this, I'd probably have the Harvest God contact the PCs and make offers to be their patron. It seems like a good part of any evil god story should be the temptation. I will say I love the NPCs in this one as the central villain is a deranged hippie New Ager and one of the local biker Anarchs is a an instagram influencer.

Innocence in Blood (Chronicle): A rich man's daughter goes to join an evil cult and said rich man hires a group of shady characters to bring her back. Yes, this classic plot to noir private eye classic Conan: The Barbarian by John Milinus. Except this time the rich man is the tyrannical ruler of a nation and the cult is the Followers of Set (wait, that was John Milinus' Conan the Barbarian too). Okay, you're supposed to rescue Prince Decker's childe from the Ministry cult she's joined. I really liked this one because both option suck and the players are stuck between bad choices. There's a lot of NPCs in these two cities from classic supplements of the past and I liked reading how they were updated for 2020. The two cities are also a great contrast with the city of Milwaukee safe for mortals but a hell for Kindred and the opposite in Indianapolis. Loved the update to Milwaukee and write-up for Indianapolis. My problem with this part of the book is the fact that it doesn't really present much in the way of third options like rescuing the girl to take to other Anarchs or how to talk her out of the evil cult she's joined. Still, it's essentially two mini-By Night books so I'm not going to complain too much.

Rusted Jungle (Chronicle): I'm going to admit this is the reason I backed the book. The update for Gary, Indiana is something that I've wanted since Dust to Dust. We've got updates to Allicia, Modius, Evelyn, Juggler, and Maxwell. There's a war going on for the city of Gary and there's a good question whether it's worth the effort from a Kindred perspective. My only regret is I think the climax could have been bigger with maybe a chance to lead your allies to slay the former Prince of Chicago. I liked this storyline because Gary is a classic Vampire: The Masquerade location and this Chronicle provides enough material to play it as a fully-detailed campaign setting. There's plenty of hints here as to the fates of other characters like Danov, Lucian, Sullivan Dane, and Michael but nothing that's 100% finished. I kind of wish this section had been longer since I would have liked full write-ups on them as well. I think Evelyn is a much better Baron of Gary and leader of the Anarchs than Juggler, so I would have also liked some more conflict there. Weirdly, I also wish they'd included the Torch (Allicia's strip club from the Storyteller's Screen adventure) as a setting in Gary since that was the kind of obscure 1st Edition lore I would have liked to have seen updated.

NPCs: This is a great selection for some reasonably stated NPCs. One of the things that previous editions had a problem with was that they were often far too overpowered to be useful. While I think some of the NPCs are too weak in V5, especially with the lack of 6+ Disciplines, these are much more useful for low-to-mid powered game. I also appreciated stat and character updates for both Modius and Juggler despite neither being interacted with in Rusted Jungle. All of the NPCs are interesting with my favorite being Gabriella, a Nosferatu Twitch streamer who is adapting to being a Hound for the Camarilla now. I also felt the updates to both Allicia and Evelyn Stephens were very well done. What's funny is this includes a collection of gamers, instagram followers, and even a LARPer who could easily be a coterie of geeky undead if all assembled together.

Loresheets: Loresheets have been one of my favorite editions of V5 since their implementation. Vampire: The Masquerade has one of the most complex and extensive lores in tabletop gaming and they allow you to become intimately connected to one element or another. I'm glad they included Modius and Juggler as well, though I think 4 points for Juggler as a Malwa is a bit much. I would have appreciated a little more in the way of Gary Loresheets with the fact that their police department is actively hunting vampires being something that I wished a Loresheet reflected. Another "missing" Loresheet that would have been interesting was a vampire connected to the Harvest God. That might not really fit with the Chronicle within as described but is something I would have loved to have seen done up.

Overall, this is a very solid supplement with a lot going for it. The book expands the representation of Vampire: The Masquerade with several LGBT characters and also pays homage to past editions of the game with numerous classic characters being brought into the modern age. The art of the book is gorgeous and really brings a lot of the characters to life. I think my favorite art pieces are Allicia, Modius (who no longer looks like a joke), Evelyn Stephens, and Keisha Phelps who are all things I'd just love to hang on my wall. This isn't a must-have, necessarily, but the adventures are some of the best I've read for the line and ones I'm definitely going to use.

The backer copy is out now and I fully predict the DriveThru RPG in a couple of weeks.
 

Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Beyond the Black Sea


Introduction

The name's Davenport. I review games.


So the other day I answer a hard knock on my office door, and I see your basic barbarian: Loin cloth, big axe, mighty thews. You know the drill.


Except this guy has a pixie sittin' on his shoulder.


"I bring you greetings, reviewer of games! I am Bodor son of Todor, breaker of chains, slayer of dragons!


"And this," he adds, nodding to the pixie, "is Brandymead Willowdew, spreader of pixie dust, gatherer of sugarplums!"


"Hi!" the pixie chimes in.


"Oooo-kay," I says. "And I suppose the two of you have a game for me to review?"


"Indeed," says the barbarian, and he pulls a book out of this big brown bag. "Beyond the Black Sea," the cover says, with a picture of a couple of Bronze Age fellas fightin' a big ape-man thing. Old school swords-and-sorcery type stuff.


Nice and pulpy, I think to myself.


"Okay," I says, "This looks like my kinda thing, all right. But, ah, what's with the pixie?"


"Ah!" the barbarian says, "That is because Beyond the Black Sea is part of the Faeries Wear Boots! line of games."


"Faeries and barbarians?" I says. "How's that work?"


The pixie shrugs. "I mostly just wing it."


Beyond The Black Sea cover
Setting

The world of BtBS is essentially Conan's Hyborian Age: Earth 10,000 years before the rise of civilization, a forgotten Bronze Age existing prior to the advance of the glaciers and an associated global "reset" of history. It's very much a sword-and-sorcery setting, with mighty barbarians facing off against ancient beasts, corrupting magic, Lovecraftian gods, and Faeries.


"Faeries?" you say? Yes, Faeries. BtBS is the ancient past of the 80s-set urban fantasy RPG Faeries Wear Boots!, and is, in fact, chronologically the first historical period covered in a whole series of games stretching on to civilization's apocalyptic end. That said, the game stands admirably on its own, the Faerie element being easily ignored if you prefer.


The book opens with an extensive gazeteer of what will become Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle-East. The world is sparsely populated, with cities few and far between. Conan fans will be happy to know that the Cimmerians are here and have, indeed, solved the Riddle of Steel, oddly leapfrogging the Iron Age.


Also featured are multiple pantheons of gods -- some of which are of the aforementioned Lovecraftian sort, others of which are Faeries posing as gods -- and the boons and magic (if any) they offer to their worshippers. Want to remove the Faerie element? Make the Faeries into the gods they're pretending to be. Done.


Bestiary


The main rulebook offers a very limited bestiary, the full bestiary being a separate book. Although the core rules do feature tips on monster creation, I strongly recommend getting the bestiary as well. In the interest of giving my readers an idea of the scope of the setting, I will say that the aforementioned bestiary contains a large number of traditional fantasy creatures as well as giant animals and Ice Age megafauna and such pulpy inclusions as ape-men and snake-men. Sadly, there are no dinosaurs, although I'm told they appear in one of the published adventures. As a result, the setting features every sort of monster I could want in a swords-and-sorcery world and then some.


Magic


Magic in BtBS comes in several forms.


The most powerful and flexible is True Magic, which involves the fast and freeform creation of effects based around the twelve Spheres of Conjuration, Transmutation, Translocation, Beguilement, Nature, Elemental, Mimicry, Shadow, Light, Entropy, Necromancy, and Divinity. This type of magic is primarily the pervue of Faeries and other magical creatures, although a truly masterful (and probably ancient) human sorcerer can learn a single Sphere. It seems slightly odd to me that the book devotes as much space as it does to something mostly NPCs can use, but that's no big deal.


For the most part, humans are limited to rituals, thaumaturgy, and miracles.


Rituals are specific and slow. Thaumaturgy is the ability to create new rituals and is the mark of a sorcerer (as opposed to a druid, shaman, or the like). Miracles are specific and fast, more closely resembling "traditional" RPG magic but requiring sacrifice to a specific god. Regardless of the type, magicians risk losing a part of their humanity with every cast, potentially going insane or even dying and having their souls devoured by creatures of the Void.


I like the variety here, although I worry that most magic-inclined players will choose to play priests in order to access miracles to the exclusion of other types of magic.

System

Character Creation


By default, all player characters in BtBS are human... mostly. Sort of. For example, the Tainted Sea People (essentially Deep One hybrids) are human -- technically -- but they also have fishy features and live forever, so the game's definition of "human" is a little loose. The book offers several such "human" races to play in addition to more conventional humans like the Cimmerians and Picts. Race choice provides a handfull of attribute and skill bonuses. The game does present the option of playing Faerie or monster characters but warns (correctly) that such characters may be overpowered for the setting.


The game's primary attributes are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Size, Attractiveness, Charisma, Intelligence, Education, Empathy, and Self-Control, rated from 1-10 and determed either randomly or by point allocation. I like this list, which bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying.


What follows is a simple life path system that involves 2d6 rolls on a table with five possibilities, each possibility in turn referencing its own tables (unless nothing at all takes place). Some events positively or negatively impact the character; others simply add background details. The 2d6 rolls seem a bit much to me. I'd probably set a fixed number on the low side.


Derived attributes are next. These are the numbers that (among other things) impact skills to a small degree, and some of the combinations strike me as particularly interesting. For example, the Combat Skill bonus is equal to (Dexterity + Self-Control)/2. I can see Self-Control applying to ranged combat, maybe, but melee combat? I'm not sure about that one. In any case, it only amounts to no more than a 10% bonus. Of far more impact are the starting skill points, determined by Education x 10 + Intelligence x 10 + 250.


Speaking of derived attributes, Hit Points -- (Constitution + Size) x 2 -- are broken down into hit locations. Personally, as a GM, I've never been a big fan of hit locations -- not because they aren't logical, but rather because I don't like keeping track of them. That's just me, obviously.


Players choose one of four archetypes: Barbarian, Civilised, Nomad and Primitive. The choice of archetype provides an array of starting skills and equipment. I'm good with the choices, as they make perfect sense for the setting.


The rules include a nice array of perks and combat techniques to help flesh out the character's abilities. These include perks that are required for those wanting to use magic. The active combat techniques (as opposed to passive, like Hardened Body) are tiring, which I like as a balancing mechanic. Otherwise, there would be no reason not to use these techniques all the time.


Task Resolution


BtBS uses a simple percentile system for its core mechanic, but with some interesting twists.


For one thing, if the player rolls less than or equal to the associated attribute bonus to the skill, the result is a special success. Rolls of 01 are always a special success, and rolls of 00 are mishaps. That's nicely transparent.


For another, the system uses degrees of success based on each 10% between the roll and the target number. That works in both directions, however, as the system includes degrees of failure as well.


Combat


Fighting uses the same basic mechanic described above. Damage is rolled, with an option to add extra damage and armor penetration for success levels -- an option I'd definitely use. I'm not a big fan of the fact that a special success in combat results in a knockdown rather than in extra damage, though. What happens if you're fighting something that can't be knocked down?


The fact that every move in combat costs Fatigue seems perfectly reasonable, although I'm not sure how heroic it is for warriors to just wear themselves out.


Armor reduces damage, which is always my preference. Speaking of armor, it rises to a level of technology far beyond the Bronze Age, all the way up to Gothic plate. That is attributed to the high technology of the Atlanteans and Lemurians, which works for me.


Magic


I covered quite a bit about magic in the description of the setting. Here, I'll just mention that magic is skill-based and that casting drains both Essence (Intelligence + Charisma + Self-Control + Empathy) and Fatigue (10 + Strength + Constitution). I'm not a huge fan of the latter, as it rewards magicians who are incongrouously buff, but it's not a deal-breaker for me by any means.

Style

The writing is fairly clear and captures the feel of the setting. The full-color art, while sparse in places, is very, very good and lends the book an appropriately epic atmosphere.


The layout is decent but seems a bit cramped in places. The organization could use a bit of work, especially regarding magic -- I found myself having to backtrack several times in order to grasp it.

Conclusion

This game is a little rough around the edges, but when combined with the bestiary, it's all you'll need for loads of swords-and-sorcery goodness. The Faerie aspect is a tad odd but is also vanishingly easy to ignore if you're so inclined. The rules are just a hair on the crunchy side for my tastes, but only just a hair. (I think it's mainly those darned hit locations.)


The great thing about this game is that it works as "pure" swords-and-sorcery or as the beginning of the saga of the Faeries onward to the end of the world.


I highly recommend this game to all fans of its subgenre, especially if they enjoy games on the medium-high level of the crunch spectrum. In particular, fans of Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying or of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay should feel right at home. Furthermore, the authors are putting out adventures for the game, ensuring that even casual gamers can get some use out of it. The GMshoe says check it out.
 

Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Art of Wuxia​

Introduction​

The name’s Davenport. I review games.

On a nice, quiet afternoon, there’s not much more annoying that a knock at my office door.

‘Cept maybe someone kickin’ in my office door.

“KIIIII-YAH!!!” says the fella, all dressed in fancy silk and carryin’ a sword.

“Um… Can I help you?” I says.

“IMMACULATE REVIEW COPY DELIVERY STRIKE!” he says, spinning around and throwing a book across the room, landing it neat as you please on my desk without so much as knocking over my stapler. A nifty trick, I had to admit.

Art of Wuxia, the cover says. Okay, so that explained a few things.

“So you want me to review this thing?” I says.

“ILLUSTRIOUS CRANE RESPONSE!!!” he says, jumpin’ up onto the back of a chair and perching on one foot. “Yes, please.”

“Right…” I says. “I’ll get right on that. Can I see you out?”

“No, thank you,” he says. “RIGHTEOUS DOVE WITHDRAWAL!”

He jumps out the window and goes running through the air down the street.

I just sigh, sit back down, and open the book. Time for some Elaborate Monkey Reviewing. Or something.

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https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/312439/Art-of-Wuxia-Core-Rules


Substance​

“Wuxia,” as the book explains, loosely translates to “martial heroes”. These are the Big Damn Heroes of an ancient mystical China — resolute, truthful, and just — wandering the land righting wrongs with powerful kung fu, swordsmanship, magic, and melodrama. Villains and the morally uncertain need not apply.

Setting​

While the game could be used for playing in a fantastical version of historical China, the default setting is the purely mythological world of Longzhi; in particular, the Dragon Empire during the time of the Long Dynasty and the increasingly harried and paranoid Emperor Gaofeng. Evil sorcerers and bandits plague a kingdom riddled with corrupt authorities. It’s definitely a time for wandering heroes to do their thing.

The author lovingly describes the world and its locations of note in brief but evocative prose, covering the Dragon Kingdom, the evil, sorcerous land of Jin, and the hazardous, monster-haunted Demon Lands. It’s very detail-light, so the content might not be enough for every gamer, but it definitely sparks my imagination.

And speaking of sparking the imagination, the book further fleshes out the setting with the prevailing mindsets and religions of Longzhi, along with an extensive list of organizations that the PCs can join or oppose. To add a little extra dash of verisimilitude, the book even includes various forms of gambling and rules for those depending upon pure luck, luck and skill, and pure skill.

To make the GM’s job easier, the book includes both a random adventure generator and a random dungeon generator, the latter including a random trap generator. Great stuff.

Bestiary

I was rather surprised to see that the game includes a very respectable bestiary (I count 57 creatures). That’s not even including the basic creature templates the section includes for carnivores and herbivores of various sizes. Of course, I don’t know that much about the genre and the degree to which monsters factor in.

The creatures fall into one of five categories: Animal, Animated, Demon, Ghost or Spirit. All creatures of the same category share some common features; for example, all ghosts can only be harmed by magic or unarmed attacks. (Yeah, the latter seems a bit odd to me, but these aren’t the ghosts of European folklore.)

Before you ask: Yes, there are Dragons, Hopping Vampires, and Yetis. I didn’t expect to see so many giant versions of ordinary animals, nor some of the types of animals made giant — the Giant Pelican comes to mind.

The descriptions are kept short and to the point, the longest being around five sentences and most being one or two. That efficient writing meant that there was more room for critters. Well played.

While they aren’t really part of the bestiary, this seems like a good place to mention the game’s NPCs. Minor NPCs can be trained by their villainous masters to fight in formation, essentially becoming a single entity. The section includes many colorfully-described major NPCs. And master villains get a selection of devious abilities sure to frustrate the hapless heroes until they can find a weakness.

Weapons of Ingenious Design

One of many cool little sections tucked away in the book, this chapter discusses weapons that aren’t necessarily magical but are so finely crafted as to be extremely improbable. Many of these are disguised weapons of various descriptions, but others are downright bizarre — the saber than can be thrown like a boomerang comes to mind, as does the sword with a flexible blade that allows the owner to wear it like a belt until needed.

System​

The game uses a simple percentile system, d00Lite, with one oddity: Double zeros count as zero rather than 100, so the roll is from 00-99. Doubles on a success are a critical success, and doubles on a failure are a critical failure. (This is the reason for the 00-99 mechanic, as it evenly spreads out criticals.) Rolls of 0-5 are auto-successes and rolls of 95-99 are auto-failures. I like the simplicity of this mechanic, and I appreciate the fact that the auto-success and -failures don’t translate into criticals.

Experienced characters can achieve scores in excess of 99, which seems to only matter insofar as multiple actions in the same round incur a cumulative -20 penalty. Degree of success doesn’t matter on contested rolls, which keep going until one participant fails. That doesn’t seem right to me but is easy enough to fix.

Character Creation

Characters have four ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Logic, and Willpower. These start at range from 35-80 and can be determined randomly using 5d10+30 for each score or by simply assigning scores of 50, 55, 60 and 65.

Characters are human by default, although the game does offer the option to play an Anning (Kung Fu Panda!) or a Fox Spirit. In addition, the game lists creatures from other d00Lite games that could fit into this setting, giving their appropriate Longzhi habitats and name changes.

Now, here’s where the game system really starts to shine. Characters have only ten skills from which to choose, but each skill is what might be called a class or profession in other games, each starting at 1/2 of its associated attribute:
  • Alchemist
  • Detective
  • Diviner
  • Leader
  • Mystic
  • Scholar
  • Scout
  • Sorcerer
  • Thief
  • Warrior
So, a character doing sneaky, underhanded things would use Thief, a character doing outdoorsy things would use Scout, and so on.

I like this. I like it a lot.

Skills have single-digit levels that translate in +10% per level to the skill base; however, some skills come with features that require no roll at all. For example, all characters with Sorcery can perform “Low Sorcery,” creating light orbs and small obvious illusions, mending clothes, making noises, etc., without the need for a roll.

The Warrior skill is noteworthy for at least a couple of reasons. First, it has two values: One based on Strength (for melee combat) and one based on Dexterity (for ranged combat). And second, players choosing Warrior for their characters get to select a kung fu style. Each style teaches specific weapons and techniques, both of which the game offers in plenty.

Special Abilities

The kung fu techniques tend toward the mundane, relatively speaking, with abilities like multiple attacks and more powerful blows. Some, however, border on the supernatural, if not crossing the line: Long-distance melee attacks, skin toughened into armor, and going into suspended animation come to mind. Then there are the secret techniques, which are anything but mundane, including a weapon that fights alongside you, a poison aura, and fists that send foes flying with every blow.

Then there’s power of qi, which serves as the game’s incarnation of hero/fate/drama/luck points. Anyone can use qi more or less like the standard hero points for such things as rerolling the dice or adding a bonus to actions, but I have to say that my favorite such use isn’t remotely standard: A heroic pose that can rally your allies and dishearten your enemies just because you look so darned cool. Actual warriors can use qi to accomplish otherwise impossible feats, like miraculously healing damage and running on water or vertical surfaces. Characters start with only three points of qi and so must be thrifty with them, although I should mention that the water-running trick costs no qi — you just have to have at least one point left. I’m happy about that, because what would wuxia be without warriors running and leaping all over the place?

Alchemy is also available, producing substances to heal, harm, or make a great big boom.

Finally, there are the actual spells high sorcery. These are going to be very familiar to most gamers: Buffing spells, charming spells, warding spells, and the ever-popular blasting spells, to name a few. While these may lack wuxia flavor at first glance, the text includes possible descriptions that sound very wuxia indeed. The only drawback I see with the magic system is that every spell has its own degree of limitation on usage — some are unlimited, some are 1/turn, some are 1/day per level, some are just 1/day, some are 1/week per level, and so on. That’s a lot more to keep track of than, say, magic points or fatigue.

Oh, one more thing… I have to tell you about the way divination works in this game.

The diviner does his divining thing, then play continues on as usual. However, if at any point the diviner thinks that things are going south, he can invoke his ability and “rewind” back to the “save point” created by his divination. Everything that happened after that point was the vision of the future.

That there is some fine game writing, my friends.

Combat

Like everything else in the game, combat is kept simple. The attacker makes a skill-based attack roll, and the defender makes a Dexterity roll to defend. (I’m not crazy about that last part, since it means that combatants can’t get better at dodging or parrying based upon their skill expertise, but that’s a minor point.) As befits such a cinematic genre, the game allows for multiple actions at a cumulative -20 penalty.

Attacks that land do damage rated in d10s and do the greater of either the weapon’s listed damage or the fighter’s Warrior-based kung fu damage, so long as the weapon is taught by the fighter’s style. Unarmed fighters do either d10/2 damage or their kung fu damage, depending upon whether or not they have the Warrior skill. This does mean that a skilled Warrior may be better off fighting unarmed than using lower-damage weapons, at least in terms of dealing damage; however, unarmed combatants are at a disadvantage when fighting armed opponents. On the flipside, it also means that low-damage weapons like darts are really deadly in skilled hands.

Armor reduces damage, which is always my preference, and shields give a bonus to parrying.

Cinematic Sliders

The game increases its flexibility by offering several options to vary the cinematic nature of the game: Making minor NPC into one-hit “mooks,” varying the amount of qi for PCs and NPCs, and utilizing training montages. I’m all for having more choices, so this is a definite plus.

Style​

The beautiful black-and-white art combines Asian stylistic aspects with realism, resulting in a look that accurately depicts the subject while feeling totally appropriate to the setting.

The layout uses a vaguely Asian script-like font for headers, helping maintain the same feel as the art. The book is neatly organized and highly legible. This is a very pretty book.

The text reads like a good friend explaining his love for wuxia in a highly infectious manner without ever becoming tedious. Rules and setting elements are explained very clearly for the most part. I noticed no typos.

The book includes both an informative glossary and a large, useful index, as all good RPGs should.

Conclusion​

Going in, I didn’t care all that much about wuxia. Now I’m eager to run this game. I can’t offer much higher praise than that.

This game packs an incredible amount of information into a mere 180 pages. The rules are clever and the setting is beautiful and compelling. If you love wuxia, I encourage you to check out this game in the strongest possible terms. If you aren’t into wuxia, then as was the case for me, this game may change your mind.
 

Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Far Away Land: Tome of Awesome​

Introduction​

The name’s Davenport. I review games.

So the other day I was in my office, mindin’ my own business — funny how often these stories start that way — when a fella in orange robes comes teleportin’ in. And I gotta tell ya, this guy was a total blockhead.

No, seriously. His head was an actual gray cement-lookin’ block.

“Greetings, human,” he says. “I am Bob the Blonin, blessed of the Glorious Cube. I bring to you this review copy of Far Away Land: Tome of Awesome.”

He hands over the book, and I give it the once-over. Big book. Funny art. Funny name.

“Is this game some kind of a joke?” I says.

“No, indeed,” he says. “True, it describes a frequently humorous world, but a world nevertheless ripe for awesome adventures! And with an equally awesome light system!”

“Huh,” I says. “Okay, you’ve got my interest.”

“So you will give it a fair review?” says the blockhead.

“Yeah, I’ll give you a square deal.”

124139.jpg
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/124139/Far-Away-Land-RPG-Tome-of-Awesome


Substance​

This it the core rulebook for Far Away Land (hereafter “FAL“). As you can probably surmise from the title, it isn’t exactly serious. Then again, it isn’t completely farcical, either. It might best be imagined as a semi-whimsical blend of Adventure Time (including the dark bits) and Dungeons & Dragons. (Yes, I realize that’s at least somewhat redundant, given D&D’s influence on Adventure Time.) It’s epic and lighthearted… until the limbs start flying.

Setting​

For a seemingly whimsical game, FAL boasts a remarkably complex and in-depth cosmology involving (among other things) an omnipotent multi-eyed rabbit and its worldbuilding children, the Cosmic Wanderers.

The world the PCs call home exists in the Materiosphere, one of nine spheres of existence and the only one to linking to the other eight.

Humans aren’t native to Far Away Land, having been pulled from their native “Urth” during the Boom War, a catastrophic failed high-tech alien invasion that resulted in fissures in the space-time continuum. As a result of the Boom War, Far Away Land features a generally medieval fantasy world with many bizarre sci-fi aspects, among them giant robots with laser weapons and psionic superhumans from the future.

To be honest, I can’t really do justice to the full setting of FAL without just relating all of it. I can tell you that the book relates the history, gods, cults, locations, heroes, and villains of the world in an always compelling and often humorous manner. (I’m a particular fan of Undead Apocalypse I. And II. And III-XI.)

Bestiary

FAL offers a prodigious bestiary of over 70 creatures, including a separate section for the various breeds of dragon. Many of these entities are familiar fantasy tropes, such as elves, dwarves, fire giants, liches, zombies, fairies, and, of course, dragons; others are more humorous, such as bear-riding nuns, vicious clown plants, a race of Sean Conneries from Zardoz, and hive-minded clones of Abraham Lincoln. Then there are creatures like the balbergulbs, molomoxors, nubyebs, as outlandish as their names.

I love the fact that the chapter lists the “loot drop” for each creature… even if it’s just the fact that the creature is tasty.

System​

FAL exclusively uses six-sided dice. Characters have only three attributes (stats) — Brute (BRT), Dexterity (DEX), and Wits (WIT) — with a human scale of 1-3. To attempt a task, the player rolls a number of d6 equal to the attribute, keeping only the highest roll and adding +1 for each 6 rolled after the first. Boons and Flaws add or subtract from the number of dice rolled. The system could hardly be easier or more transparent.

Combat

Human PCs begin with Action (ACT) points per round equal to DEX + 3, and different combat actions cost different numbers of ACT. Moving normally costs 2 ACT and attacking costs 3, so the average starting human PC can move and attack in the same round. PCs gain +1 ACT every five levels.

Characters use BRT for melee attacks and DEX for ranged attacks. Normally, I don’t care for systems that equate brute force with melee accuracy, but I’m willing to give that pass here given the system’s overall simplicity.

The margin of success plus weapon damage determines total damage. Light human-sized weapons do 1d6 damage, while heavy human-sized weapons do 1d6+1. (I’m not a huge fan of this, as both daggers and one-handed swords of all types count as “light”.)

Giant-sized weapons add an additional 1d6 to damage but are harder for human-sized creatures to wield. In addition, larger creatures get flat bonuses to damage. I’m fine with that. The only problem I see is that size is the only way to get that damage bonus, meaning that the only way for human-sized creatures to do greater than human-scale damage is to have attacks that are superhumanly accurate.

Armor subtracts from damage, as is always my preference.

Character Creation

As previously mentioned, PCs have three stats: BRT, DEX, and WIT. Human PCs have 6 points to divide between these stats and can have a score of no higher than 3, so the core decision here is to have scores of 2, 2, 2 or 1, 2, 3. Once again, nice and easy.

Human PCs have Hit Points equal to BRT + 10, with an additional +1 per level after 1. I’ve never been keen on ever-increasing Hit Points, but this level of increase doesn’t seem too extreme.

PCs start out with 2 Luck Points that may be spent to add extra dice to a roll per point spent. That seems a little stingy, but then, I tend to err on the side of cinematic when it comes to such mechanics. PCs gain +1 Luck Point per level.

Characters get four Boons (skills) at +1 each at character creation. These skills are kept very broad; e.g., Melee covers all hand weapons. I’m good with that. I’d generally prefer to have an option for specialization, but that seems too crunchy for this game’s design.

Flaws, on the other hand, subtract 1-3 dice depending upon the situation and involve disadvantages like Bigot, Perfectionist, or Smelly. For some reason, the number of Flaws is a random 1d3. I don’t follow the thinking there, but this is a minor point.

As mentioned, this is a level-based system. Interestingly, the game separates level from experience points. Characters level up based upon the number of sessions played — generally 2-3. Characters earn experience points based upon their actions (or the actions of their players, in the case of just showing up to play). Experience points go to gaining or increasing Boons, increasing Stats, or (for whatever reason) increasing Flaws. This split seems unusual to me, but I like the fact that it makes leveling up more… organic, maybe?

The game includes 15 nonhuman species that can serve as PCs. I’m happy to see that, especially given the fact that humans are a small minority of the population. I do have to note, though, that not all of these species are balanced, with some simply being pound-for-pound better than humans.

Magic

Spellcasters must have the Arcane Boon and can have spells of a level no greater than their own level. The game leaves the number of starting level 1 spells up to the GM but suggests 2-3.

The game uses a spell-per-day limit on spellcasting, which is probably my least favorite sort of spellcasting limit. On the other hand, PCs can cast their level + 3 spells per day, which at least gives more flexibility than does the Vancian magic of a certain other fantasy game…

Spells have levels from 1-10. For perspective, the level 1 Heal spell restores 1d6 Hit Points, while the level 10 Resurrect spell brings the recently dead back to life.

Abilities

In FAL terms, “Abilities” are somewhat akin to limited superpowers — limited mainly because those that must be activated can only be used a number of times per day equal to the PC’s level. (Other Abilities, like Night Sight, are always on.)

For PCs, one Ability costs two Stat points. That’s a steep, steep cost, especially for something you can only do once a day at level 1.

Frankly, this section seems a little sloppy.

For one thing, some abilities lack sufficient detail. Hydrokinesis, for example, lets the user control water, but to what extent and to what end? The only thing we know for certain based upon the ability’s description is that it doesn’t cause damage.

For another, there are some Abilities that are simply better at doing the same thing as other Abilities. Energy Blast, for example, does 1d6 damage at close range, while Hellish Rainbow does 2d6 damage at close range. Why would anyone ever take the former? Likewise, Harden makes the user immune to slashing and piercing attacks, while Invulnerability makes the user… well, totally invulnerable.

And while many Abilities seem fairly weak, at least a few are staggeringly overpowered. “You know everything,” the text blithely states regarding the Omniscience Ability. Yeah, that’s not going to cause any problems… And Resurrect Self has the PC automatically returning to life 1d6 hours after being killed, with no limitations whatsoever.

I should also note that some Abilities, like Summon Demon and Animate Dead, seem like they should be spells, not Abilities.

Companion Rules

This is basically a section consisting of several mini-games. The rules for mass combat and for building adventures, scenarios, and settlements offer obvious utility. Other mini-games are a bit more esoteric, involving the players taking on the rolls of gods, architects, or historians of FAL and collaboratively building the setting.

The rules for training montages are a nice touch, having the player of the training PC describe the stages of the montage to the other players, who then rate their level of amusement and thusly determine the length of time the training takes.

Style​

The author/artist describes his style as “cartoony, colorful, imaginative, like Simpsons meets Adventure Time meets D&D with a little blood and some occasional amputations” — a very accurate assessment. Like the game itself, the full-color art is quirky, whimsical, charming, and often quite violent. If there’s any drawback to the style, it’s that I can’t quite manage to visualize what FAL “really” looks like. In my mind, it just looks like the art to me, period. And I suppose that’s fine. After all, it’s not like Mickey Mouse is meant to represent an actual mouse.

The writing presents even the most ridiculous aspects of FAL with a straight face, much to my amusement. More surprising is the degree to which the author is able to evoke a sense of wonder and beauty alongside the humor, reminding the reader that this isn’t simply Slapstick Cartoonland. No typos stood out to me.

While the text seems a bit dense in places, the overall layout is very clean. Like all good roleplaying books, FAL includes an extensive index.

Conclusion​

As should be obvious by now, this isn’t a game for everyone. It’s not a totally comedic game, but it’s a long way from being a serious fantasy setting. So, who is it for? Well, for one thing, it’s for gamers looking for one Hell of a bargain. At 300 pages, this jam-packed volume is currently going for $4.99 PDF/$25 softcover on DriveThruRPG. It’s also for gamers looking for a light but robust system. And most of all, it’s for gamers who want to have epic adventures with some good laughs along the way. If that sounds like you, the GMshoe says check it out.
 

Dan Davenport

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LIMINAL​

Introduction​

The name’s Davenport. I review games.

So the other day I answer a knock at the door, and there stands…

…this ordinary guy.

Just a guy in a plain brown suit.

I look around past the guy. Figure there must be some alien or hellspawn or mutant freak back there somewhere.

Nope. Just the one ordinary guy.

“Hello,” the guy says in a thick Limey accent. “John’s the name. John Walters.” He shakes my hand.

“Nice to meetcha,” I says. “Here with a gig?”

“I am indeed,” Walters says, handing over a nice-lookin’ book with “Liminal” on the cover.

“What’s the pitch?” I asks.

“Urban fantasy,” he says. “Faeries, werewolves, ghosts, and vampires hiding in the present day UK.”

“I’m always good for that,” I says, flippin’ through the book. Really pretty book. “I’ll give it a good review.”

“I know you will,” he says. He taps his temple, smiling and nodding. “I have foreseen it.”

“Riiiight,” I says. “Well, anyway, wanna come in? Have a drink?”

“No thanks, old chap,” he says. “Must fly, I’m afraid.”

He turns into a swan and flies away.

I sigh and walk back to my desk, settin’ the “Days Without a Weirdo” sign back to zero.

267203.jpg
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/267203/Liminal


Substance​

Setting​

Liminal is a modern-day urban fantasy setting taking place in Britain and Northern Ireland (although the book does offer some tips on playing in other parts of the world). Magicians, faeries, ghosts, werewolves, and vampires all exist, as do folkloric beings from all over the world, with only a select few mortals in the know. Among the latter are the Order of St. Bede, a joint operation between the Anglican and Catholic Churches dedicated to keeping the supernatural a secret, and P Division, a national police division that investigates supernatural crimes.

With a few exceptions, magic is pretty low-key, and magicians tend to be fairly specialized. You aren’t going to find anything remotely resembling the wizards of high fantasy here.

The Fae fall into three general categories: Nobles, commoners, and monsters (trolls, giants and the like). In an unusual twist, the Fae are vulnerable to bronze, not iron. There isn’t one Fae realm, but rather many of all sizes found in many places.

Vampires can sprout fangs, are immortal, and are stronger and faster than their human prey, but they otherwise have no other supernatural powers by default. They are weakened but not destroyed by sunlight and can possess certain folkloric weaknesses at which other RPGs scoff, such as garlic and mirrors. Only vampire lords can create other vampires.

Werewolves are created by choice through a ritual and are fully in control of their transformations into huge (but not obviously supernatural) wolves, although they do tend to be quick to anger. In human form, werewolves are stronger and tougher than normal humans and heal quickly but are vulnerable to silver. They form gangs.

Ghosts in Liminal are interesting. While most are invisible and immaterial, older ghosts can form physical bodies out of dirt and dust. Others enter (or are forced into) corpses, forming revenants. A powerful revenant is a Jason Vorhees type, while a weaker revenant is your typical zombie. I like that. I also like the concept of Ghost Realms, which are akin to the ghosts of bygone places.

The setting emphasizes the importance of Crews and Factions. A Crew is a small group of individuals who have each other’s backs — like, say, the PCs. Factions are the movers and shakers of the world:

  • The Council of Merlin: An ancient order of wealthy, snooty magicians.
  • The Court of the Queen of Hyde Park: Manipulative civilized Fae.
  • The Court of the Winter King: Wild uncivilized Fae.
  • The Jaeger Family: Prominent werewolf nobility seeking to unite the various werewolf gangs under their banner.
  • The Mercury Collegium: “Gutter mages” specializing in magical crimes.
  • The Order of St. Bede: A joint operation of the Anglican and Catholic churches dedicated to fighting the supernatural and protecting the public from the sinfulness of magic.
  • P Division: A secretive UK police division that investigates the supernatural.
  • The Sodality of the Crown: The rulers of the UK vampires with their claws in human society.
Like the megacorps of cyberpunk, these organizations provide plenty of major forces of the world for the PCs to back, oppose, or simply run jobs for.

The book goes into loving detail about the cities, towns, villages, and unusual locations of note in the UK. Is it enough to run a game set there? Never having been there myself, I can only speculate, but it certainly seems to do a serviceable job.

Bestiary

Actually, this is more of a modest list of sample NPCs than it is a bestiary, at least insofar as the section describes examples of individuals rather than stats to cover an entire class of being. These examples fall under the following categories:

  • The Fae
  • Ghosts
  • Clued-In Mortals
  • Ordinary Mortals
  • Vampires
  • Werewolves
Now, being a huge fan of monster stats, the section definitely left me wanting more. In particular, the stats for Fae creatures seem awfully generic. Still, it’s a decent start that does cover the basics.

Adventures

The game includes two adventures of reasonable length: “Goblin Market” and “The Book of Blood”. Both require equal parts social interaction, investigation, and combat, making them very good introductions to the setting.

System​

Task resolution is a 2d6+skill roll, with certain traits adding a bonus. The difficulty level is either set by the GM, with 8 being the base level, or by an opponent’s skill+8. This does mean that actions against another character are going to be tougher than uncontested actions. That makes sense for PCs and major NPCs, who, as the text points out, are competent individuals, but seems a bit off for actions against “Joe Average”. Still, it’s a simple enough system. I approve.

Critical successes occur when the total is the difficulty+5, of which I also approve — I never like critical successes to be left completely to chance. The text suggests several special effects that a critical success might produce.

The result of a failure is up to the GM. It could be an actual failure, or it could be a success with consequences of some sort, including damage. I’m ambivalent about purely “fail forward” systems, but I really like “failing forward” being treated as an option rather than as a mandate.

Rolling double ones is a critical failure of sorts, adding a complication but, interestingly, resulting in experience for the character. Again, I’m not keen on critical failures to be purely luck-based, either, but at least the effects here seem fairly mild.

Character Creation

Unsurprisingly, character creation begins with choosing a concept. In this case, PCs are the game’s eponymous Liminals, people with one foot in the mundane world and one in the hidden world of the supernatural.

This status places some limits on just how “supernatural” a PC can be. All must be at least part human, but werewolves are allowable, as are Fae-blooded humans and the not-quite-vampiric dhampirs. Actual Fae and true vampires, however, are beyond the pale for PCs. This makes sense for the setting: In my opinion, the Fae of urban fantasy should be mysterious. And vampires? Well, let’s just say that it’s a refreshing change these days to have them be purely inhuman blood-suckers.

Players will also choose a drive for their PCs — what motivates them. In addition to its importance for roleplaying the character, the PC’s drive also affects regaining Will (see below).

The closest the game comes to character classes comes with the choice of the character’s focus:

  • Determined: The character gets +2 Will and can take Determination Talents for traits.
  • Magician: The character can take magical styles as Traits.
  • Tough: The character gets +4 to Endurance and can take Toughness Talents for traits.
For starting characters, skills range from 1-4 and are fairly broad — Melee and Shoot cover all combat abilities, for example. However, characters with skills of 3 or higher can choose to spend a point on a specialty, at which the character will have +2. I’m always a fan of general skills with optional specialties, so this is ideal for me.

Characters do have attributes of a sort, but not in the common RPG parlance:

  • Endurance: Athletics skill + 8. Your basic hit points.
  • Will: Conviction skill + 8. See below.
  • Damage: Depends upon the weapon the character is using, which doesn’t seem much like an attribute at all to me.
Traits are a mix of mundane and supernatural perks and flaws. Characters receive 5 points to spend on traits and can gain 1-2 more points by taking limitations.

Some traits serve as what other games would call “attributes”. These only provide one flat bonus; e.g., characters with the Brawny Trait get +2 to strength-based Athletics tests and to hand-to-hand damage. Traits include three entries each for use by Determined or Tough characters, including Supernatural Strength, which supersedes Brawny and adds a +4 bonus instead. Note that this means that in this setting, there are literally only three levels of strength: Normal, Brawny, and Supernatural. That’s awfully limiting.

Traits also cover the schools of magic, but I’ll get to those in just a minute. For now, I’ll just note that because magic schools cost 2 points each, the most styles any starting magician is going to have is 3.

Will

Will in this game combines aspects of fate/drama/hero/luck points and magic points. Will points can be spent to add points of success to a roll in order to increase the success level, but they are also required to activate some traits and magical effects. I like this, as it makes magic require more dedication.

I also like the fact that Will returns as characters follow their drives as well as when they take a day of rest.

Combat

Opposed Awareness skill rolls determine initiative. The Melee or Athletics skill opposes Melee attacks, while Athletics alone opposes Shoot attacks. Damage is rated in 1d6 plus a modifier, from +0 for unarmed to +4 for a heavy firearm. Any attacks more dangerous than that are treated as instant kills. I can see the value of the simplicity there, but it enforces a human scale upon the game. Granted, it’s unlikely, but suppose a PC got ahold of a heavy weapon and turned it on a massive Fae monster. Should the result be instant death, simply because such an attack would instantly kill a normal human?

Unsurprisingly given the modern setting, the rules don’t even mention armor. Still, there’s certainly a chance that, say, police body armor could come into play, so I think some mention is warranted.

Because damage comes off of Endurance, of which the typical person will have at least 8 points, one-shot kills are unlikely unless the attacker gets a critical success and invokes the effect of +1d6 to damage. (Other possible effects including taking the initiative and disarming the opponent.) Still, the danger of a one-shot kill will almost always be out there, making combat appropriately dangerous and best avoided when possible.

Magic

Liminal breaks down magic into eight schools:
  • Blessings and Curses
  • Divination
  • Geomancy
  • Glamour
  • Necromancy
  • Shapechanging
  • Ward Magic
  • Weathermonger
Each school provides one basic ability, with additional trait purchases adding additional school-related abilities — some of which may be surprising. For example, the basic Blessings and Curses school allows the magician to give +2 to a skill or attribute for a scene or to attack a target’s Will, a named curse taking effect if the target’s Will is reduced to zero. However, specialists in the school can learn to bless a weapon to make it effective against supernatural protections, make minor physical attacks, heal wounds, and place themselves or others under protection from physical and magical attack. Likewise, the seemingly purely defensive school of Ward Magic can allow magicians to place wards on weapons to cause more damage — essentially forcing a target to break the ward — and specialists can place wards on themselves and break them at will, directing the energy toward an enemy target.

I find all that to be very clever.

The only drawback I see is that due to the limited number of points available for traits, starting magicians will be quite limited in their abilities. Of course, for some, that may be a feature and not a bug.

Style​

This full-color book is a true work of art, filled with beautiful, vaguely dreamlike images that fully convey the feel of the setting. As a nice bonus, the book features an entire section of nothing but inspirational art.

The writing matches the art in its poetic portrayal of the Hidden World. In particular, the author clearly portrays his love of the UK and its mysterious legends and folklore. No typos stood out to me.

The layout is clean and professional. The book includes a comprehensive index.

Conclusion​

Liminal presents a very specific vision of urban fantasy. It’s a lovely, skillfully crafted vision, but a specific vision. That being the case, it won’t scratch the urban fantasy itch for everyone. If it does scratch that itch, though, it will scratch it quite well.

For me, it doesn’t quite work, mainly because I love the author’s vision of the Fae so much that I’d like to see much more of them and their abilities than the game currently reveals. The author’s elegant prose is just that good. It may well be that Pax Londinium, the London sourcebook, includes some of the details I crave.

I think this game will appeal to fans of urban fantasy who are willing to look at the subgenre through a fresh set of eyes, especially if they’re the sort of gamer happy with a system that works for the setting without allowing for outlying possibilities. So, while this isn’t my ideal game, it is a very good game, and it might well be yours.
 

Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMShoe Reviews: Punktown

Introduction

The name's Davenport. I review games.

So the other day this fella walks into my office, grinnin' from ear to ear.

No, I mean literally. His mouth stretched from one ear to the other.

"So... what are you supposed to be?" I says.

"A Choom."

"Gesundheit"

"No," he says, "I'm a Choom. We're the natives of the planet Oasis, home to the city of Paxton, better known as Punktown."

"I see," I says. "And why should I care about Punktown?"

"Oh, lots of reasons," he says. "You've got a futuristic setting with aliens (like me), mutants, robots, clones, and even Lovecraftian horrors, using Call of Cthulhu 6th edition and Basic Roleplaying."

"That does sound promisin'," I says. "Want to talk some more about it over a glass of whiskey?"

"Oh, no," he says. "I've gotta get going. I'm telling everyone about Punktown!"

"Well, you do have a big mouth."



Substance

Foreward


Punktown
creator Jeffrey Thomas introduces the reader to the history of the setting, from its conception in 1980, through the publication of his first book in 2000 and the creation of the RPG book.

The Seeds of Corruption

This is a Jeffrey Thomas short story about a face-shifting mutant detective's efforts to thwart an apocalyptic cult at the behest of some extradimensional bug people. It's a great introduction to the feel of the settting -- something that's certainly needed, given the setting's odd nature.

Introduction

In addition to giving an overview of the book's chapters, the Introduction provides a helpful glossary of Punktown terms, a map of the city, and a quick explanation of why the setting is ideal for roleplaying.

Chapter One: The Punktown Universe

Here the book delves into Punktown itself, explaining that in this setting, humanity has spread through the universe via teleportation and interdimensional travel rather than spacecraft. Punktown, the colloquial name for the massive city of Paxton, exists on the planet Oasis and is a chaotic mix of clones, mutants, cyborgs, robots, aliens both extraterrestrial and extradimensional, and the shadowy influence of the Cthulhu Mythos. It's a dark and fascinating place with a surreal mix of contemporary and far future elements.

The chapter offers a plethora of Punktown locations, each with a scenario hook to make them immediately useful.

Chapter Two: Gamemastering

This chapter starts off by exploring the potential themes of Punktown adventures:
  • Corruption: Every sort of crime and depravity exist in Punktown, some of which are so alien as to make no sense at all.
  • Neo-Noir: There's room in Punktown for rare, flawed heroes willing to take a stand.
  • Technology: Specifically, the use of technology in all manner of sick, twisted ways (see "Corruption" above).
Up next, the text discusses the importance of personal relationships in Punktown and how that affects playing with one or two players as well as with a more standard-sized party. I like that flexibility, as very few settings in my experience address playing with just one player. (Of course, given how brutal life is in Punktown, I'm not sure how feasible such an approach is in practice.)

There's good news and bad news for Punktown characters when it comes to the issue of sanity. Given the prevalence of alien horrors and violence in the city, Punktown residents of a year or longer have SAN resistance equaling POW/3 -- a very welcome feature, since the standard Call of Cthulhu sanity rules would result in Punktown PCs going bonkers in no time flat. The bad news is that every year spent in Punktown drains one point of maximum SAN.

The chapter next discusses life in Punktown, a place where weapons are a necessity. If there are any doubts on that subject, the random crime table titled "Punktown Will Kill You" clears them up nicely.

The chapter ends with a helpful random adventure creator with chapter references to relevant people, places, and things.

Chapter Three: Characters

So what sorts of PCs can you play in Punktown? Oh, the possibilities. The races suggested for PCs are all humanoid in form and generally human in overall power level, although the text does say that GMs are welcome to allow players to choose the more powerful and exotic races from the bestiary.

  • Choom: The natives of Oasis. Human-looking aside from mouths that literally stretch ear to ear.
  • Clone: Two varieties: Workers and soldiers. The former look like ordinary humans; the latter are all bald with a blue camouflage pattern on their skin due to having been bred to fight on a literal blue planet.
  • Kalian: Attractive gray-skinned, spiritual, turban-wearing people with harsh laws regarding their women.
  • Sinanese: Appearing like blue-skinned Asians, the extradimensional natives of the blue world Sinan fall into two factions: the Ha Jiin and the Jin Haa.
  • Robot: All PC robots are humanoid and self-aware. They start off relatively weak but can accept unlimited upgrades with enough money.
  • Tikkihotto: These aliens look just like ordinary humans except for the creepy worm-like ocular filaments they possess instead of eyes. Their remarkable visual acuity allows them to see in the dark, discern invisible transdimensional life forms, and perceive the mysterious color known as shrain.
After listing the Basic Roleplaying skills for no real reason that I can figure out, the chapter goes on to introduce 12 new professions. Many of these are simply the Punktown incarnations of ordinary professions, like Artist, Corporate Drone, Entertainer, and Student, but others are quite a bit more exotic. Some examples:

  • Child of the Elders: A member of an Earth cult dedicated to the Elder Gods in opposition to the Great Old Ones.
  • Health Agent: An agent of the Health Agency of Paxton with great autonomy and authorization to use deadly force in the prevention of dangerous plague outbreaks.
  • Theta Researcher: An explorer of other dimensions to study the trace energies of deceased humans and humanoids.
Chapter Four: Powers

Powers in Punktown take the form of sorcery and mutations, the latter including psychic powers.

Sorcery

The rules give Punktown sorcerers access to the full list of spells in both Basic Roleplaying and Call of Cthulhu. Human (and humanoid) sorcerers in Punktown are more potent than their Call of Cthulhu counterparts due to their Punktown-spawned sanity loss resistance, which seems fitting.

The book introduces four new spells:

  • Ascending Mode: Summons a demon at the risk of possession. Oddly, the text doesn't include the stats for the type of demon summoned, making the spell's utility questionable.
  • Descending Mode: Banishes a summoned demon.
  • Doors Upon Doors: Makes the sorcerer instantly aware of an intruder.
  • Line Travel: Allows the sorcerer to teleport by way of another dimension.
Mutations

As previously mentioned, Punktown mutations include psychic powers, but the rules don't mention how to treat psychic powers as minor/major mutations. That will require a bit of work on the part of the GM.

Of course, this section will only be of use if the GM owns Basic Roleplaying, since Call of Cthulhu doesn't include mutations at all.

The chapter does include seven new mutations, however:

  • Caro Turbida: Allows the mutant to duplicate the features of another humanoid.
  • Dimensional Folding: A bizarre mutation that allows the user to transform an object into a two-dimensional picture, fold it up, and store it in extradimensional space.
  • Fish Mutant: Makes the mutant amphibious.
  • Multiple Faces: Exactly what it says.
  • Sonic Blast: A stunning sound-based attack.
  • Spider Form: Makes the mutant cadaverous and adds extra joints to his limbs, increasing the Dodge skill.
  • Telepathy: Combines mind detection, mind reading, thought transfer, and empathy.
For some reason, the author includes tables of diseases and drugs in this chapter. In any case, believe me when I say that the examples given of both are appropriately grotesque.

Chapter Five: Equipment

This chapter first offers a few examples of miscellaneous equipment, followed by a wide array of weapons -- melee, energy, and projectile, as well as some that defy easy categorization. Some of these are flat-out weird, like the energy rifle that can fire a ray at a target you can see through a computer monitor or surveillance camera. Three examples of Punktown armor are included as well.

More intriguing are the rules for cybernetics. Cybernetic upgrades reduce the user's maximum Sanity -- a potentially deadly cost in a setting based on Call of Cthulhu. Punktown being the kind of place that it is, there's also the risk that any installed cybernetics may be second-hand, stripped from either corpses or still-living "donors", and hence subject to malfunctions.

The section presents basic cybernetic replacements followed by various upgrades. Most of these are the sorts of practical enhancements that you'd expect, like pop-out claws, stronger arms, and night vision eyes, but others are more cosmetic and truly strange. The Body Window comes to mind, a literal window revealing the subject's guts as a fashion statement.

The chapter features a large table of Mythos tomes and their associated spells, although these will only do you any good if you own Call of Cthulhu. In an interesting touch, the text notes that actual physical tomes are rare in the setting but that they may have been digitally transcribed and distributed.

A small sampling of vehicles also appears in this section. These include flying and hovering cars, tanks, and the bizarre dimension-hopping coleopteriod tran.

Chapter Six: Creatures

And speaking of bizarre, that certainly describes the beings found in this chapter. If the aliens in Chapter Three seem too human-like, those in this chapter are, for the most part, utterly inhuman in numerous creative ways worthy of Lovecraft himself.

The chapter includes 23 aliens, 7 creatures, 7 robots, 9 servitor races, and 3 new Great Old Ones -- a very respectable bestiary, especially given that anyone owning this setting book presumably will have access to the full Call of Cthulhu bestiary as well. (Amusingly, the Grays appear among the aliens. Turns out all that abducting and probing of humans was their idea of a joke.)

Scenarios

I'm a huge fan of pregen adventures, because they assure that I can get some use out of a setting with minimal effort. That's doubly true of a setting as strange as this one. Punktown includes three great full-blown scenarios, ensuring that you can get your money's worth from this book even if you never write your own adventure.

The Lemongrass Crater

A freak disaster involving a meteor strike on a Punktown apartment complex reveals some things better left buried. This one is a nice little "bug hunt" dungeon crawl with a bit of investigation beforehand and some great opportunities for NPC interaction.

Twisted Genius

Someone or something is abducting children from a local elementary school. Lots of investigation will be required, with a touch of combat here and there.

Looking Long Into The Abyss

This is a truly freaky and horrifying adventure that is not for the faint of heart or the easily triggered. It also makes up for the lack of Cthulhu Mythos elements in the two previous adventures -- assuming that's a drawback to you, of course -- by dishing it out in spades here. And not in a cheesy "Mythos hoedown" way, either. Every horror the players encounter makes perfect sense. (In a sanity-blasting manner, of course.) Find out what happens when the Mythos meets the Ultranet, Punktown's answer to the Internet. (Hint: You'd better have really good virus protection.)

Gathering Forces

The book ends as it began, with some fiction by Punktown creator Jeffrey Thomas. This time, a group of former gang members reunite to face an avatar of a Great Old One manifesting right in the heart of the city.

Style

The cover is amazing, depicting the group from "Gathering Forces". (Or, rather, the cover inspired the story, according to Jeffrey Thomas.) The black and white interior artwork ranges from serviceable to excellent, the best of it putting me strongly in mind of Tim Bradstreet's work. The layout is top-notch, with an attractive border depicting combat against some sort of summoned tentacular horror.

The writing is clear and engaging, at times darkly humorous, at others deeply disturbing. I caught a few typos here and there, but nothing major by any means.

The book lacks an index and could probably use one... but then, I think that about most all RPG books. On the bright side, the book does include a really cool character sheet that looks like it was designed by a serial killer.

Conclusion

Punktown
might be visualized as a fever dream shared by William Gibson, William S. Burroughs, and H.P. Lovecraft. As such, it's an ideal setting for futuristic surreal horror. This book brings that setting to life in a nearly flawless manner.

In fact, the only real hesitation I have in recommending Punktown is the fact that it requires both the Call of Cthulhu 6th edition rules (which are now one edition out of date) as well as the Basic Roleplaying core rules in order to get the full use from it. If you already happen to have both, I'd recommend this supplement in a heartbeat. And honestly? If you only have one, it would be worth at least springing for the PDF of the other in order to play in the Punktown setting. It's that damn good.
 

Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe reviews: SLA Industries 2nd edition​

Introduction​

The name’s Davenport. I review games.

So the other day I’m sittin’ at my desk, when in barges… somethin’. Fella looked like someone crossed an ape with a shark and threw the whole works into a microwave.

“Gots a game for ya, hurr hurr,” the big goon says. He hands it over. “SLA Industries 2nd edition,” the cover says.

“SLA, huh?” I says. “I remember that one. Dark game. Made cyberpunk look like the Candyland. Kept a whole lotta secrets from the GM.”

“Not no more.”

“Oh, yeah? The origin of the Carrien?”

“Thas notta secret.”

“DarkNight?”

“Notta secret.”

“Thresher?”

“Notta secret.”

“White Earth?”

“Nope, not no secret.”

“I’ll be darned. That’s pretty impressive. Is there anything that’s not a secret in this edition?”

“Thassa secret, hurr hurr.”

SLA Industries 2nd Edition
https://nightfall.games/sla-industries-2nd-edition


Substance​

Setting​

The world of SLA Industries is a bit difficult to describe, because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense by design.

The setting is known as the “World of Progress”: A series of entire star systems owned completely by the eponymous corporation, SLA Industries. This corporation is the center of a monopolistic nightmare in which a single company owns everything: Armaments, entertainment, food production, the media, everything. Subsidiaries compete with one another, but SLA runs the whole show. And at the top of the SLA food chain sits the mysterious and disfigured Mr. Slayer, head honcho of the entire World of Progress.

Mr. Slayer rules from his headquarters on the environmental wasteland of a planet called Mort where the rain never stops, in the planet’s capital of Mort City. Mort City is surrounded by the ruins known as the Cannibal Sectors, haunted by monstrous freaks, killer robots, and, of course, cannibals. Below Mort City lurks the Deep Construct, subterranean levels of the city that shouldn’t be there, seemingly extending downward forever into increasingly distorted reality where the horrors known as Dream Entities lurk.

That’s just the beginning of the problems facing SLA Industries. Rival companies Dark Night and Thresher challenge SLA Industries in the marketplace and on the battlefield. The aliens known as the Conflict Races, previously thought extinct, have returned to renew their fight with SLA. Somewhere out in space floats the mystery of White Earth and its rule known as Bitterness, worshipped by the Shi’An Blood Cult on Mort and granting them seemingly impossible sorcerous powers.

That brings us to the player characters. Known as Operatives, these are freelance troubleshooters hired by SLA to, well, shoot troubles. Their exploits serve as fodder for reality TV shows, and accomplished Operatives can expect corporate sponsorships as well as increasing security clearance. (On the downside, because hand-to-hand combat makes for better television, SLA has imposed a costly tax on bullets.)

The tech level of the setting is awfully hard to pin down. A cyberpunk period has already come and gone, with flawed cybernetic enhancements having left many users crippled and penniless. Computers are clunky green-screen affairs, and fax machines are still in common use. Laser guns don’t exist, but powered armor does. Several methods of faster-than-light travel are in use. Artificial life forms are common. I would say the tech is very roughly in the Blade Runner range.

Overall, it’s a very odd, frequently disturbing, and seldom subtle place, and I like it a lot. True, it’s quite bleak — you are, after all, working for the Bad Guys to help stop the Worse Guys — but somehow, the setting works its way past “depressing” and on into “fascinating”.

I can’t very well review this edition of the game without addressing the previous edition of the game — specifically, “the Truth,” aka “The Writer’s Bible“. The first edition kept all manner of secrets from the GM, which is a cardinal sin in my book. Among these secrets was the infamous Truth behind the setting, which eventually came to light and which is no longer considered canon.

Well, while this edition does keep some elements of the setting a bit of a mystery, it does, at least, spill the tea on many parts of the setting that were mentioned by name but never explained in the first edition. For example, while we still don’t know the origin of Bitterness, we do, at least, know what White Earth is to some degree: A desert planet populated by horrors that defy reality. We also get the full history of topics such as DarkNight, Thresher, and the loathsome Carrien. In fact, pretty much everything left as a vague mystery in the first edition is revealed to be amazingly cool details in the second.

Is there any flaw in the setting? Well, the book does focus very strongly on Mort City, with a bit about the Cannibal Sectors thrown in for good measure. The text does describe some other Mort locations as well as some other planets, but it’s not enough to use in play without a lot of work. Space travel gets a bit of space, but only in the form of FTL travel methods. I have no idea what spacecraft look like, and space combat isn’t even mentioned.

Does it sound like I’m reaching for flaws to discuss? I am. There’s plenty of adventure material to be found within the confines of Mort City, and there’s the 2nd edition update to the Cannibal Sector 1 sourcebook if you want to go beyond the city limits. I guess if you never thought that the Seattle megaplex was enough space for Shadowrun, you might find Mort City a bit claustrophobic; otherwise, it should be plenty.

Threat Analysis (a.k.a. the Bestiary)

SLA Industries 2e outdoes its predecessor several times over in terms of antagonists. Some highlights…

Carnivorous pigs. That regenerate.

The feral skull-headed Carrien get an extensive entry, including their top-secret origin.

The Shi’An Cult writeup includes details on the two types of magic that they use — Ethereal Magic and Blood Magic — and stats for some of the horrors they summon from White Earth.

The book reveals the histories of rival corporations DarkNight, Thresher, and Tek Trex, and features stats for their people and equipment, including examples of Thresher’s infamous power armor.

I like the mysterious Scavs of the Cannibal Sector. They remind me a bit of the Sandpeople of Star Wars with a knack for evaluating and improving existing technology. Their writeup includes some examples of such tech.

I love the concept of Dream Entities — creatures that literally shouldn’t exist, with the terrifying ability to warp reality. If the corridor up ahead suddenly seems to stretch on forever, you’re probably being chased by a Dream Entity.

The Manchines are really freaky, and I was happy to see them written up. Imagine Terminators with the notion that being draped in rotting human flesh is an adequate disguise.

I was impressed that the book managed to make the Shivers, SLA Industries’ combination police force, national guard, and even fire department, interesting.

As generous as this collection is, noteworthy omissions include the Cannibals of the Cannibal Sectors, the Conflict Races, and the monstrous “ascended” Ebonites known as Necanthropes.

System​

Character Creation

PCs come from one of nine species:

  • Human: Adaptable and sociable, but not the “baseline” species (there isn’t one).
  • Frother: Imagine drug-fueled Scottish berserkers, and you’ll have the right idea.
  • Ebonite: A Human-like species of two variants — the Ebon and the Eban (or “Wasters”) — able to use the mystic power of the Ebb.
  • Stormer 313 “Malice”: Enormously fast and strong lab-grown monstrosities.
  • Stormer 711 “Xeno”: Not quite as fast and strong lab-grown monstrosities, but brighter than their “Malice” kin.
  • Shaktar: Powerful, honorable warriors. Think of scaly red Klingons with Predator dreadlocks.
  • Wraithen: Sneaky humanoid lizard-cats.
  • Advanced Carrien: “Civilized” Carrien employed by SLA Industries.
  • Neophron: Smart, charming, sophisticated bird-people.
I like the selections here. If I have any problem with it at all, it’s the fact that some of the creatures — mainly the Stormers and the Advanced Carrien — are so monstrous themselves that it’s hard to imagine them being taken aback by other monstrosities. That’s a very minor issue.

Characters have the stats of Strength, Dexterity, Knowledge, Concentration, Charisma, Cool, and Luck (for non-Ebonites) or Flux (for Ebonites). The overall PC stat range is 0-6, but each species has its own range. Again, Humans don’t represent any sort of stat baseline. Their Strength maxes out at a relatively puny 3, for example, while their mental and social maximums are 5s, and their Luck is a whopping 6.

Strength governs hand-to-hand combat and Dexterity governs ranged combat. I’m never fond of Strength governing the chance to hit (rather than the ability to cause damage), but it seems somehow fitting that brute force rules the day in a setting such as this. Strength does affect unarmed — but not armed — combat damage as well, but a Strength-based damage bonus doesn’t kick in until a Strength of 5, well above the Human maximum. That seems a tad strange, but I suppose it emphasizes just how much stronger some of these species are than Humans.

Speaking of things that feel appropriate, it’s fitting that in the media-saturated World of Progress, the PC receive Ratings Points assigned specifically to Body (Strength and Dexterity), Brains (Knowledge and Concentration), and Bravado (Charisma and Cool). These can be spent on various seemingly implausible feats. Luck, on the other hand, is spent to re-roll or improve dice rolls.

Skills are fairly general. The Melee Weapons skill, for example, covers all hand-to-hand weapons aside from long-shafted ones, which fall under the Polearms skill. Species-intrinsic skills and numerous training packages help speed skill selection along, although players do get to add a pool of points to any skills of their choice.

Also in the spirit of speeding things along, the game offers only 18 positive or negative Traits to flesh out the PCs.

Finally, all SLA Operatives get a standard set of equipment. It’s not much — armor’s not included, for example, and you really want armor — but at least you get an auto-pistol. And a lighter. And contraceptives.

Task resolution

SLA Industries 2e uses an attribute + skill mechanic in a rather unorthodox but interesting way. It’s a dice pool system… sort of. The success or failure of an action depends upon a single d10, the Success Die, plus the relevant attribute and skill scores. However, the degree of success depends upon a pool of d10s called Skill Dice equal to the skill+1, with the relevant attribute and skill added to each of the Skill Dice individually. So, for example, if a character had a relevant attribute of 3 and a skill of 2, the player would roll 1 Success Die and 3 Skill Dice, adding 5 to each die individually and comparing the totals to the difficulty to determine which rolls are successful. If the Success Die is a failure, it doesn’t matter whether the Skill Dice are successes, unless four or more Skill Dice are successful, in which case the attempt is just a basic success.

Is your head hurting? Mine was, too, when I first tried to wrap my head around this. However, I eventually came around once I realized that this mechanic has the benefits of a single-die mechanic and a success-counting dice pool mechanic: Both success/failure and level of success are highly transparent with minimal math.

Combat

A character’s initiative equals the sum of Dexterity + Concentration + 1d10 — a nice combination of quick moves and quick thinking.

For such a supposedly cinematic game, I was a bit disappointed to learn that combatants are limited to one attack per round unless on certain combat drugs.

Successes in combat always have a difficulty of 10 plus assorted modifiers. It’s important to note that attack rolls are not opposed; instead, combatants in hand-to-hand combat can either dedicate some of their combat skill dice for the round to defense for a -1 modifier to the attacker’s dice totals or else can do nothing but dodge using the Acrobatics skill, giving a -2 modifier per Acrobatics skill die. Combatants in a firefight, however, had just better take cover. Again, I don’t see that mechanic as particularly cinematic, but it is appropriately unforgiving and brutal.

As I always prefer, success levels affect damage. However, it’s not a 1-to-1 relationship between successes and increased damage. Instead:

  • +1 Skill Die = +1 DMG
  • +2 Skill Dice = +2 DMG or hit an arm
  • +3 Skill Dice = +4 DMG or hit a leg
  • +4 or more Skill Dice = +6 DMG and hit the head
While I’d prefer a more direct correlation between success levels and damage, I do appreciate the fact that this method avoids a separate roll for hit location.

Damage levels are rated in your basic Hit Points, which are based on Strength plus a species-related modifier. Damage from attacks are based on either Strength plus a possible modifier (for unarmed attacks) or d10s plus a possible modifier, with all attacks having a minimum damage level.

Speaking of damage, armor reduces it, as is my preference; however, weapons have an Armor Damage rating that affects the armor’s Resistance — essentially, the armor’s own hit points. That should keep armored-up Operatives from getting too smug.

The Ebb

Something between magic and psionics, the Ebb is the mysterious power wielded by the Ebonites. Ebonites invoke these powers by spending a round on mental calculations and spending a point of Flux. Ebb abilities fall under disciplines, with each level of skill giving access to two abilities. The disciplines are:

  • Awareness
  • Blast
  • Communicate
  • Enhance
  • Heal
  • Protect
  • Reality Fold
  • Senses
  • Telekinesis
  • Thermal (Blue/Red)
Of the two breeds of Ebonites, only the Ebon can use Blue Thermal and only the Eban can use Red Thermal — ice and fire powers, respectively.

The scope of some of these powers isn’t immediately obvious based upon their names alone. For example, Blast also covers light-related abilities, including the ability to see in the dark.

I’m not sure how I feel about supernatural powers being limited to a single PC species, but I like the powers themselves.

Style​

The full-color art in this book knocks it out of the park, fully capturing the high-octane darkness of the setting and staying completely consistent throughout. I can’t praise it highly enough.

The writing likewise fits the setting, conveying the oppressiveness of the World of Progress using text seasoned with a touch of wry humor, especially in the in-setting commentaries. And, as was not so much the case with its predecessor, the writing is crystal clear.

The layout is a bit on the busy side, and I caught myself backtracking a few times to verify what level of a heading I was under. I’m willing to forgive that, though, given the sheer volume of quality information provided.

Finally, like all good roleplaying books, SLA Industries includes a comprehensive and useful index.

Conclusion​

My feelings on a game have seldom done such a 180 between editions as they have on SLA Industries. Certainly, this is a niche game with a setting that may be too dark and depressing for a lot of gamers out there… but then again, if the World of Darkness game line has proved anything, it’s that there’s a market for dark and depressing. And SLA Industries somehow manages to give dark and depressing a fun kind of “Ah, screw it! Lock and load!” attitude. It’s not for everyone, but what game is? And what it does, it does very well indeed. The GMshoe says check it out.
 

TristramEvans

The Right Hand of Doom
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THE LABYRINTH ADVENTURE GAME


PRELUDE

It is December, 1982. In the back of a limosine sit Jim Hensen, Brian Froud, and Froud's new wife Wendy. The three had just attended a San Francisco screening of The Dark Crystal. An incredibly ambitious fantasy epic, The Dark Crystal pushed Hensen's creature shop further than ever before, and created a motion picture unlike anything the world had ever seen. The film project that began in 1978 was now finally only days away from wide release. Hensen addresses his two companions with a question that takes them both by surprise.

"Well, should we make another movie?"

It is June, 1986. Labyrinth opens in the US at #8 at the box office, almost unnoticed behind Ferris Bueler's Day Off, The Karate Kid Part II, Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School, Danny DeVito's Ruthless People, Schwarzenegger's Raw Deal, Billy Crystal's Running Scared, and The Adventures of Milo and Otis. The 25 million dollar production would go on to make only a little over 12 million in it's theatrical run, and recieve mixed to lackluster critical response.

It was to be the final film Hensen directed before his untimely death in 1990.

It is April, 1992. David Bowie states in an interview with MTV that he is most recognized, not for his musical career, but by a "crop of new children every year who say 'Oh! you're the one who's in Labyrinth!'"

It is October, 1997. In an interview with Entertainment magazine, Brian Hensen states that when his father died in 1990, both the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth had already started to enjoy a cult following.

"He was able to see all that and know that it was appreciated,"

It is February, 1999. Labyrinth is released on DVD for the first time, and is the best-selling DVD of the year, making an estimated 65 million in sales.

It is January, 2007. Labyrinth is released on DVD for the 3rd time, in a "20th Anniversary Special Edition". It is estimated that home video sales for the film since 1987 have exceeded 500 million. It is currently considered one of the Jim Henson Company's most successful films.

It is June, 1986. I am six years old. My mother takes me and my sister to the theatre in Kingston, Ontario to see Labyrinth. It is an experience that I will remember clearer than any other event that year. For the next 34 years, it will remain one of my favourite films, and is instrumental in inspiring a lifelong fascination with European folklore in general, and studies of the Faery Mythologies in particular.


DTsqpeTWAAEAW_e.jpg



PART I - PRESENTATION

" 'Ello."
"Did you say 'hello'?"
"No, I said "Ello", but that's close enough."

The Labyrinth Adventure Game is a 6x10" 295 page hardcover published by River Horse Games, written by Jack Caesar and Ben Milton (with numerous "guest authors" who contributed individual Scenes). It comes with a very thick cardstock dustcover featuring a reproduction of the original US theatrical poster painted by Ted CoConis. Removing the dustcover, the book is a red cloth bound reproduction of the Labyrinth book owned by Jennifer Connelly's character Sarah Williams in the film itself. It is perfect bound, and features three integrated silk bookmarks, black, yellow, and red in colour. Included is a bookmark with a summary of the rules.


81mn8tu6rsL._AC_SL1500_.jpg


The pages are a high quality matte ivory. It is full-colour and heavily illustrated, featuring art pieces by Brian Froud from the film's production and his follow-up book, Goblins of the Labyrinth, along with additional illustrations by Chris Caesar, Johnny Fraser-Allen, Ralph Horsely, Rebecca More, Dan Mumford, and Jeff Stokley. There are also 15 pages of stills from the film and promotional material.

The most unique feature of the volume, however, is a small, roughly 1 x .5" hole running through the majority of the pages that houses two custom 6-sided dice for use playing the game. The dice are red with white pips and an owl symbol replacing the "ones". I'm not aware of any other RPG book with this feature in the hobby's history.

It was an odd choice. It mainly means that every time I want to read the book I have to take the dice out and set them aside. Not a big deal, but I would not call it an innovation so much as an inconvenience. Luckily, it appears that this feature does not hurt the integrity of the pages themselves (I was initially worried that this hole would be prone to rips).

Overall, the presentation is nothing short of luxurious. I have possibly never seen another RPG book of this level of production value, and it's clear that love and attention was devoted to every aspect. The only thing holding it back from perfection is that some of the contemporary art included is of a much lower quality than I'd prefer. There is one artist among those listed whose art is...while not bad...not especially good, and suffers in comparison from the juxtoposition of Froud's amazing work. This is a minor niggle at best, however, and does not overmuch detract from the presentation as a whole. It is likely this bothers me more than it would most readers.

Final Score: A

PART II - THE RULES

"Ow! It bit me!"
"What'd you expect fairies to do?"
"I thought they did nice things, like... Like granting wishes."
"Hmph. Shows what you know, don't it?"

The Game Master is referred to in the rules as "The Goblin King". On the one hand, while I tend to mildly dislike assigning "clever names" to the GM role (*cough* Hollyhock God *cough*), it is in this case rather appropriate. On the other hand, I worry ever so slightly that this implies an antagonstic role for the GM, mostly as this game is ostensibly aimed at new gamers. I believe emphasizing the duty of a GM to act as neutral arbiter as paramount and this could undermine that to some degree.

The system included is exceptionally simple. The GK sets a difficulty for any task that requires a roll between 2 ("easy") to 6 ("not fair") and the player rolls a die, with a result of equal or above counted as success. The roll is modified in two ways: if the player character is at an advantage, they roll 2D6 and take the highest result; if the player character is at a disadvantage, they roll 2D6 and take the lowest result.

That is pretty much it. There are no rules for combat, weapons, injury or healing. Even movement is completely left open to interpretation. The only other notable rule as such is that each player character can carry a maximum of 6 items, herein called "Equipment".

I don't have any problem with this. As someone who has GMed many a game of Risus, Fable, The Window, and other "ultra-lite" systems practically one step away from freeform, I think this is perfectly useable as the basis for a game. That said, I again have reservations about this as a game for people with no experience playing RPGs, which is definitely how it presents itself. I'm reminded of Everway, actually, a game that was targetted at new players, but relied on a very experienced GM to run successfully. I think the combination of an experienced GM with players new to RPGs is probably an optimal situation for this game.

Additionally, as far as I can tell, this is a "only players roll" system. GK's are given numerous randomized charts to roll on, but there is no mention of rolls by NPCs. Of course, any canny GM can ignore this easily enough. Though this is a game more about puzzle-solving than direct interpersonal conflict, so it doesn't bother me as a premise the same way it did in, say, Dungeonworld.

Final Score: C
 

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PART III - CHARACTERS

"You have to understand my position. I'm a coward. And Jareth scares me."
"What kind of a position is that?"
"No position! That's my point."


Chargen in the Labyrinth Adventure Game is almost as simple as the system itself. Character sheets can be copied from the book, or downloaded from River Horse's website here: https://riverhorse.eu/download/jim-hensons-labyrinth-the-adventure-game-character-sheets/

Labyrinth Character sheet.jpg



Each player picks a Kin. There are 7 provided by the game. The book suggests new players pick from one of these but states that experienced players may want to make up their own Kin, something that would be exceptionally easy following the paradigm set here.

DWARF - Dwarves are the caretakers of the Labyrinth. When you pick a Dwarf as your kin, you get to roll to see what their job is, and recieve a piece of Equipment relevant to such.

FIREY - You have detachable limbs and can throw your head at people. It's implied that it's possible to lose your limbs in the Labyrinth, and that this is considered more of an inconvenience than an injury.

GOBLIN - A rogue Goblin has the advantage that other Goblins you encounter will, by default, assume that you are on their side.

HORNED BEAST - a telekinetic wooly-bully, with the advantage/disadvantage of being "Very Large"

HUMAN - "What is the measure of a man?" asked The Bard. Well, in this case it means you get one extra Trait.

KNIGHT OF YORE - You are honourable and chivalrous, and can aquire a steadfast steed (but do not begin the game with one)

WORM - You have the advantage/disadvantage of being "Very Small". You can also climb walls and (presumably) make a mean cup of tea.

Once you've picked your Kin, you chose one Trait and one Flaw (with Humans getting an extra Trait). A sample list of each is provided, but it is again suggested that you might come up with your own.

EQUIPMENT - while travelling through the Labyrinth, you may aquire items, and as mentioned earlier, you can carry a maximum of 6 at any time. Only the Dwarf starts the game with a piece of Equipment. This of course is a bit of a departure from the source, the only time I recall any item playing a role in the story of the film is when Sarah bribes Hoggle with some plastic jewelry, and it does lend the game a bit of a "Zelda-ish" quality, but it's a perfectly fine extrapolation IMO. After all, an RPG should not restrict itself only to the events of a single story.

Finally, as a group, you chose a Goal. By default, the game premise is that the Goblin King has stolen something from you that you are trying to recover. This could be something physical...

885bcfb3-1902-4f0b-a780-ced29695103c_text_hi.gif


...or something ephemeral, like a memory or a feeling. Maybe he stole from just one member of the group, maybe he stole something from each of them. Either way, you have 13 hours to reach the Goblin King's castle at the centre of the Labyrinth to retrieve it.

TEAMWORK - whenever players work together at a task, the Difficulty is reduced by one for each person assissting. Not to get too 'Rules Lawyery' here, but this does mean that if you have 6+ players, you're pretty much able to make every task an automatic success. Of course, I dont really run games with that many players, but if I did I might houserule a limit onto this - such as a roll of one is always a failure, no matter what. And certainly there will also always be situations where teamwork is not possible, so it's possible that practically speaking, this isn't really an issue.

PART IIIb - EXPERIENCE

"I could never do it before. I think I'm getting smarter."
The game does not have a set experience system, this is left entirely to GM fiat. But character growth is nonetheless greatly implied. For example, the Horned Beast kin begins the game able to control one of a certain type of object, but it states that with practice, they can learn to control many such objects. Likewise, the Knight of Yore is able to find a beast in the Labyrinth and, if they are able to tame it, use it as their mount. The lack of set rules here are again, par for the course, and I think no GM should have much trouble allowing characters to grow. Though this isn't suggested, my first thought is that characters might be afforded opportunities to change their Traits, acquire new ones, or even resolve their Flaws.



Overall, what we have is a very swift means of getting into play immediately. Perhaps some Pre-Gens might make this even quicker, but that hardly seems necessary when chargen amounts to "pick a race and decide one thing you are good at, and one thing you are bad at". I like the encouragement towards customization, and players coming up with their own ideas rather than feeling restricted by the options provided by the game.

Final Score: B
 

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INTERLUDE

It is spring, 1985. We are living in Kingston, Ontario. The first video rental shop opens in town, not too far from us. For the first time we are not restricted by the meager selection at Mac's Milk convenience store. The Rental place is called "Banditos", and it seems huge to me. A Critters standee is just inside the doorway, threatening to eat me up before I have the chance to scream. I find it strangely comforting. Half of the store is VHS, the other half is Betamax tapes. We have a Betamax player. Each week, my sister and I are allowed to pick two movies a piece. For me, this is always The Dark Crystal and...

The Dark Crystal and The Last Unicorn.
The Dark Crystal and Dragonslayer.
The Dark Crystal and Inframan.

I lost track of how many times I'd seen The Dark Crystal. My parents are amazed one day to discover that I can recite every line from the film from memory. Exasperated at one point that I wish to rent it yet again, my mother asks me why I want to keep watching it over and over again. My response is succinct in the way of a five year old:

"There's still so much to see"

It is summer, 1987. We attend a concert of the children's performer, Raffi. After the show he signs autographs for the kids. I get him to sign the back cover of my Labyrinth picture book. I spent a large part of the concert reading it while listening to the music.

I have a set of Labyrinth stickers that I acquired through multiple boxes of cereal. I mounted these onto cardboard and then cut them out to create makeshift 2D action figures. I am inconsolably upset when one of these is accidentally ripped in half. My Mother tries to replace it, but the cereal promotion is long since over.

sticker.gif


It is autumn, 1989. We have just moved to Kemblesville, Pennsylvania. My mother takes us to the nearby library, where I discover Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee for the first time. I'm not yet aware that Froud is the same artist that worked on both The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, but I feel an immediate kinship with the illustrations. The implied mythology that the book provides is a taste of something that fascinates and resonates with me in a way I can't explain. I feel a great desire to "own" this information. Unbidden, I retrieve a blank notebook from my mother and begin copying down descriptions of the creatures within, accompanied by crude reproductions of the art.

It is winter, 1992. We are living just outside of Houston, Texas. Today, like many days before, I am skipping school. My Mother drops me off at the front parking lot, I wait until her car is out of sight, and then I head up the street to the large public library. At this point I know the dewey decimal system by heart, so no longer need to consult the card catalogues and instead head directly to section 398 ("folklore and mythology"). Acquiring an armful of volumes, I take them over to a secluded desk and pull out my latest notebook and a handful of mechanical pencils. Opening the first book, I prepare to begin taking notes...

It is winter, 1998. I am attending my first year at the Joe Kubert School of Graphic Art in Dover, New Jersey. Down the street from the school is the "Dirt Mall", a repurposed building that is part flea-market, part black-market garage sale. Each "shop" takes up one room in what at one time might have been a one-story house, along with a basement full of single sellers at fold-up tables. One shop sells knives and military paraphernalia. Another albums and tapes. One sells toys and comicbooks - nothing new, only old longboxes of stuff from the 80s. One sells VHS tapes. Half of the store is porn, the other half obscure and hard to find films. Labyrinth has been out of print for several years, and the copy kept behind the counter, in a Disney-esque clamshell, formerly of some video rental shop, is priced at $75. I talk the owner down to $50. I have enough money left over for two cassettes - Lita Ford's third album "Lita" (featuring her duet with Ozzy Osborne, "If I Close My Eyes Forever") and Poison's "Slippery When Wet".

It is autumn, 2005. I am in Anchorage, Alaska. The "University Mall", a strip mall with a small school attached, features a two-screen independent theatre that normally shows independent or foreign films and documentaries. They are showing a double-billing of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal for one night, this is in anticipation of the release of MirrorMask later that month. This is my first time seeing The Dark Crystal on the big screen, and the first time since 1986 seeing Labyrinth in the theatre.

MirrorMask came from an idea by Executive producer Michael Polis when The Jim Henson Company and Sony Pictures expressed interest in making a film "like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal", based on the two films' consistent home video sales. The Henson Company initially considered creating a prequel for the Dark Crystal or sequel to Labyrinth, but decided that "it made the most sense to try and create something similar or in the spirit of those films and attribute it as a Jim Henson Company fantasy title."

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, two of the creative forces behind Vertigo comics' The Sandman, wrote and directed the film, respectively.

At the other mall in Anchorage, there is a Hot Topic. Besides gothic clothing and what could only loosely be described as jewelry, the chain is most known for carrying merchandise from films that have achieved the status of "cult classic". It is here that I find replicas of the door knockers from Labyrinth.

MirrorMask finally arrives in Anchorage at the end of September. It is shown in a limited engagement at The Bears Tooth TheatrePub, which offers a combination dining and film experience. I attend with my girlfriend at the time and her three daughters. I order a chipotle burrito meal with wild rice and sweet corn, and a draft ale that tastes faintly of chocolate. The meal is the only thing warm that night, as the heater in the Bears Tooth breaks down and the theatre is freezing throughout the showing. My girlfriend acquires a wool blanket from the boot of her car for her kids to wrap themselves in, while she and I bear through the cold huddled together. No one at any point suggests leaving or missing any part of the film.

It is autumn, 2015. I am living in Vancouver, BC, a few blocks away from an independent theatre/bar called The Rio. They are showing a double-billing of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. The Dark Crystal starts too early for me to get out of work, but my soon-to-be fiancé and I attend the screening of Labyrinth. There are no children in the audience, A cosplay/costume show takes place before the movie. This is the last time to date that I rewatch the film. I remark afterwards that David Bowie's crotch seems bigger every time.

David Bowie passes away on the 10th of January the next year, at the age of 69.
 

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PART V - THE LABYRINTH

"What have we here?"
"Ohhh...uh...nothing..."
"Nothing? Nothing? Nothing tra-la-la?!"
The majority of the Labyrinth Adventure Book is composed of the the individual vignettes making up the Labyrinth's environs and the Castle of the Goblin King. The book contains 99 individual Scenes, broken into 5 chapters -

The Stonewalls (22 Scenes)
The Hedge Maze (22 Scenes)
The Land of Yore (21 Scenes)
The Goblin City (22 Scenes)
The Castle (12 Scenes)

For the most part, each individual scene is a self-contained puzzle, encounter, or obstacle, but the resolutions can sometimes have lasting effects. Each Scene is presented as a 2-page spread, with a map and often some randomized charts. I have not yet read through every puzzle in the book, but enough to say the following:

  • There is no single linear path or even an overall map of the Labyrinth. It moves and shifts as you travel through it, and is different everytime you play.
  • There is no set difficulty. Some Scenes are easy, some are devilishly tricky. It doesn't get harder or easier as you go on, the Labyrinth is pure chaos.
  • This books contains genuine puzzles that the players will have to work out on their own - no "roll and your character comes up with the answer"
  • A lot of Scenes are ambiguous with no set single path to victory, and there is no set of "solutions" for the GM. This means creativity on everyone's part is essential.
  • The puzzles are effectively system-neutral. You could easily run the game using any RPG you like, especially modular OSR systems. Creatures are defined in terms of their personality, behaviour, and goals, not system stats.
Here is an example shared by River Horse on their web-page:

Labyrinth scene example.jpg



It's honestly not the most interesting of possible examples, but does give a general idea of the format to expect.

Movement through the Labyrinth is governed by two mechanisms.

The first, is whenever you complete a scene, you mark it with the red bookmark, and then roll a die and proceed that many scenes forward, If you ever don't complete a scene, you can go back to the last scene you completed and roll the die again to choose a different path. You cannot go back further than the last scene you completed because at that point the Labyrinth has changed behind you. So from every completed scene you have 6 possible avenues forward.

The other mechanic is the 13 hour clock ticking down that you have to complete the Labyrinth before the Goblin King turns your baby brother into a goblin (or you permanently lose your memories of your mother, or the Goblin King draws mustaches all over your valuable baseball cards and reads your copy of Action Comics number one while eating cheetohs, etc, depending on what he's stolen from you). The game could almost used a physical representation of this clock, and there is one to pilfer for this very purpose if you happen to own the Labyrinth boardgame also put out by River Horse games.

However, the twist here is that the clock isn't really a "clock" so much - or anything to do with time really, or at least linear time. You can spend hours playing with no movement on the clock, and then the clock can rapidly advance several hours in short succession. It is certain failures during Scenes or rolling a one at vital moments that triggers the clock.

I'll cover the castle in the next section. In conclusion for this part I'll say that every other thing this game has going for it aside, the Scenes making up the Labyrinth are worth the price of admission in and of themselves, whether you plan on playing the game as presented, adapting it to the system of your choice, or simply pilfering the ideas for any fantasy RPG,

It's also worth noting that the authors have done an exceptional job of capturing the sense of humour of the film. This means that it is full of whimsy, sillyness, and general wackiness. It is the embodiment of what my friends across the pond would call "twee". Obviously this means that this is not the sort of game that's going to appeal to everyone. I'm sure you all know gamers, like I do, that can't abide that sort of stuff. There's also a large group of people who this would appeal to that I couldn't abide, personally (it's what I would call the "Changeling Factor").

Final Score: A


PART VI - THE CASTLE

"Beware. I have been generous up 'til now. I can be cruel."
"Generous? What have you done that's generous?"
"Everything that you wanted I have done! You asked that the child be taken. I took him.
You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time.
I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you!
I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn't that generous?"

When players reach the castle of the Goblin King, the game changes somewhat. There is now a map of the area. The rooms do not shift and are linked together. A roll of the dice decides what room the Goblin King starts in. Each turn the Goblin King will move to an adjacent room. The player characters must complete the obstacle in a room to move to an adjacent room. The party can split up to try and corner the Goblin King, but this will make the challenges more difficult. Each room has it's own reaction table for the Goblin King if he's cornered there.

The individual rooms of the castle are up to the standard of the campaign as a whole - any individual one would be worth taking and inserting in the adventure of your choice.

Again, the ending is left ambiguous. The presumption is the characters will face down the Goblin King and force him to return what he has stolen, but this is not a mechanized or systemized event. A GM will need to put some effort in to make this resolution feel satisfactory. I could see "OK,, you cornered me. I give you back your stuff, you win. The End" coming across as more than a little anti-climactic.

In other words, successfully resolving this game depends on role-playing.

I have to say, I rather admire that.

This is indicative of an overall conclusion regarding this game - its very much a situation where what you get out of it depends on what you are willing to put into it. It's open to the GM to define the nature of the game, and the Goblin King themselves. And it's this point I'll note that there's nothing tying the position or personality of the Goblin King to Jareth from the film. Early on reading this I began to think of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, a story where a young boy and girl encounter a fairy object (a Troll Mirror), and shards of this mirror enter the boy Kai, "freezing his heart" and making him cruel and uncaring to Greta, the girl who loves him. That night, Greta sees the eponymous Snow Queen arrive in a sled and whisk Kai away. Greta then sets off on a series of adventures and trials to make her way to the Snow Queen's Castle, to confront her and reclaim Kai.

What this reflects in general is the nature of Labyrinth, the film, which draws upon and synthesizes numerous fairy tail motifs from around the world, all of which could be taken as inspiration for creating a unique version of the quest presented. The fairy abduction of children is of course a long-standing tradition, but where the film glosses over the Changeling element, it would be easy to turn this on it's head - what if it's the Changeling itself travelling through the Labyrinth, trying to discover it's heritage? What the game does an admirable job of is opening the options past simply recreating the film, and provides a framework to build upon.

Final Score - A


PART VII - THE BESTIARY

"You're a worm aren't you?"
"Yeah, s'right."
"You dont by any chance know the way through this Labyrinth do you?"
"Who me? Naahh, I'm just a worm, eh."

After the adventure proper is a bestiary that includes creatures you can insert into the game, along with more detailed descriptions of creatures featured as both antagonists and playable kin.

Included are:

Black Hart, Brick Keepers, Cricket Men, Door Guards, Dwarves, Eye Lichen, Fairies, False Alarms, Fireys, Giant Turtles, Giant Badgers, Goblins, Goblin Mounts, Goossoogs, Griffons, Helping Hands, Horned Beasts, Humans (lol), Junk Lady, Knights of Yore, Morainian Lions, Night Trolls, Sentient Plants, Sphinx, Stilt-Birds, and Worms.

Again, numerous randomized charts are provided to customize them (especially for goblins, who get two pages of charts to construct them), and the descriptions are free of game stats. The entry for humans, amusingly, has a chart to assign them a name, personality, and appearance.

It's an unexpected addition to the game, and helps further emphasize the customizable nature of the setting. One could also easily extrapolate from here any creature from fairytales, folklore, myth (or videogame) to insert in the game.

It's also worth noting that even the included creatures described does not cover all the numerous encounters in the Scenes, as one can see clearly from the sample Scene that I posted earlier.

Final Score - B

PART VIII - CHAOS!

"But that's not fair!"
"You say that so often; I wonder what your basis for comparison is."

Finally, the book provides a series of random charts. One page of random encounters, one page of random potions, and two pages of random Equipment. It's a nice touch, something for the GM to employ as they see fit to add more variety to the game. Indeed, throughout the volume there is a proliferation of charts, something that one doesn't encounter in many modern games outside of the OSR. It's a too that l I think for a long time the hobby seemed to forget about, as the 90s saw an increased emphasis on narrative structures and crunchy bits for characters. There seemed, for a time, almost a prejudice against charts, which is a shame. If this game represents one of the first steps by modern games adopting some of the lessons from the OSR, I can only hope it's a trend that continues.

The book also has an index. I am a huge advocate of indexes in RPGs. I can't say how many RPG rulebooks that are sorely in need of one are lacking , but I'm a bit surprised to see one here, because, well, of all the RPG games out there, it probably needs one about as much as a printout of Risus. Nonetheless, there it is.

And, last but not at all least, the book finishes up with 15 pages of photos from the film. Actually, that's not correct, some of these pictures are not stills from the film, they are obviously either behind-the-scenes production stills or part of early advertising. These are printed on high quality photo paper and spared the dice holes that run through the rest of the book. It is another completely unnecessary, but deeply appreciated luxury.

I'm not going to assign these sections a score, they are all just bonuses, and will factor into my final evaluation and conclusion, coming up next.
 

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PART IX - DENOUEMENT


" But why?"
"Because that's the way it's done."
"Well, if that is the way it is done, then that is the way you must do it."


The Labyrinth Adventure Game is a love-letter to a 35 year old film, a luxurious artifact of beautiful nostalgia. And it could have been just that, and probably would have made a pretty penny just as a collector's item. It also could have been a railroad through the events of the film, a nostalgia maze with a set story that goes no further than the source material, and I think there are plenty of fans that would have been perfectly fine with that.

What it is, instead, is something unique. A "living setting" that takes the original premise and creates an adventure path unlike anything I've seen in an RPG module before. It is not slavishly true to the source in all cases, and could easily be used to run a game that doesn't resemble the film it's named for in any way. In fact, this might have been released with no ties to the IP whatsoever, and people would say "this feels like a Labyrinth game, and they'd be both correct and incorrect, because it is ultimately it's own thing, something like the Labyrinth but not THAT Labyrinth.

It's also worth noting that in pursuing this approach, they also avoid addressing an aspect to the original film that specifically lies in the subtext of it's story. The Labyrinth is a fun adventure film just as this is a fun adventure game, but Labyrinth is also a very poignant metaphor for growing up, a cleverly constructed narrative of not just a fairy tale, but of someone growing out of a worldview that is simplistically defined by fairytales. It is the story of a girl's transition into womanhood, and deals with many aspects of that, including letting go of physical possessions, taking on adult responsibility, coming to terms with a world that is not fair and just, and even (quite blatantly at times to the point rewatching the film as an adult it is surprising what they got away with in a children's film), her sexual awakening.

None of that is present in the game.

While some fans might argue that means the game is lacking as an adaption, I personally think this is a good thing. We were spared a bunch of pretentious White Wolf-type wank about the "deeper meaning of role-playing games", some heavy-handed social/personality mechanics, and what could only be systemized in the form of a character development railroad.

But that isn't to say that those elements cannot or should not be present in an individual group's game. It is simply up to the GM and the players working together to develope their own story. To invest the game with as much (or as little) deeper meaning as they chose.

Which brings me to my next point, something that I remarked upon earlier. This is a game that relies heavily on role-playing. You will get out of it as much as you are willing to invest into it. This is an approach that is refreshing, frankly, as over the years there's been a constant drive to systemize as much of the RPG experience as possible so the bare minimum is expected of players and GMs. This is an RPG whose primary focus is role-playing itself, and that is, in my opinion, more novel than it should be in this hobby.

So, what is the final verdict? Well, that's difficult to say, actually. Because that depends very much on what will appeal to you, what you personally, want from the game. My intention was to finish with an overall Pros and Cons list, but what I've found is the only things that are actually "cons" to me are the two very minor niggles I mentioned in the first part - I don't care for the "dice-in-book" innovation, and some of the art isn't perfect.

So instead, I'm just going to offer a list, and you, dear reader, can decide for yourself whether it is a Pro or Con

  • The production standards are top-of-the line, some of the best ever seen in the hobby.
  • The system included is incredibly light, and relies heavily on interpretation and GM fiat.
  • The game is well-suited to new or younger players, it quickly gets them playing and the system resolution is intuitive and easy to learn.
  • Likewise, the game asks a lot of the GM, without providing very much in the way of GM advice or direction. In this manner, the game seems more suited to an experienced GM.
  • The system is also not intrinsically tied to the adventure, so the game could be run with another system of one's choice.
  • The adventure is inclined to a lot of re-playability, and no two paths through the Labyrinth will be the same.
  • The individual Scenes of the game can easily be pilfered for other games.
  • The game is not entirely faithful to the source material and adds elements, including potions, equipment, and many new creatures.
  • The Scenes include actual puzzles and riddles the players are expected to solve
  • The Scenes are "not fair"; there is no progression of difficulty, and in some cases the odds are stacked against players
  • Many Scenes are open to various interpretations in how to resolve them
  • There is a built-in mechanism in the game for players to deal with Scenes that they cannot overcome that additionally reinforces the shifting nature of the Labyrinth
  • The game makes frequent use of random-roll charts
  • There is a particular sense of humour that is expressed through the game, that is frequently whimsical and silly

FINALE FINALE SCORE - A-

POSTSCRIPT

It is Summer, 1999. I've just finished my tenure at The Joe Kubert School of Graphic Art and I have returned to my parent's house for the first time since I moved out in my early teens. I say "returned", but this was never a house that was my home. And now it is just my mother's house, as she and my father are going through a divorce. My sister, now in her second year of High School, seems to be taking it the hardest. This brief time would be my last visit to Texas, and my last time seeing my sister. I visit one of the large malls in Houston, and by happenstance run into my grandparents, on my father's side. My grandmother tells me that my mom is a leech and all she ever did was take from my father. I wonder what she's talking about. I don't mention my father's frequent infidelity that ended the marriage. I just say "it is what it is". I hug them, and exchange pleasantries. This is the last time I see my Grandparents before their deaths.

I spend my time not at work mostly online. AOL chats. In one of these I am invited to a play-by-post Labyrinth game. I've never played this sort of RPG before. There is a list of official characters from the film, that people can sign up for if they are not already taken, or you can make your own character. I opt for the latter, and create a character called The Third Sorrow. He is a raven, one of the sons and daughters of the Celtic goddess, The Morrighan. I spend more and more time in this game, sometimes posting until 3 am. It's not very much like the RPGs that I've played before that point. More like a soap opera. Some of the players are living out romantic fantasies. This is particularly true of the pair playing Jareth and Sarah.

My father stops by the house to pick up some of his belongings in the garage. My mother and sister yell at him over things I can't remember. I don't say anything to him. This is the last time I will ever see him.

I meet several girls online, and these lead to intense, but brief, relationships. I am young, and totally unprepared for the illusion of love created by intimate online interactions. One girl I fall particularly hard for. We start using silly terms like "soul mates". She lives in Anchorage, Alaska.

Particularly distraught one night, my mother threatens to commit suicide with a handgun she got from who knows where. Probably purchased by my father at some point. She holds it to her head, crying. I lie to her. I lie to her that she's a good person. I lie to her that she's a good mother. I lie to her that she has so much to live for. I lie to her that she is so important to me. She calms down, and puts the gun away.

I realize in that moment that she is no longer my mother. Of course, I've always known that she wasn't, biologically speaking. But this is when I realize that she doesn't even fit that term as a role in my life.

The next day she hates me. It is like she took all the anger she had towards my father and transferred it onto me, the only male in the house. I mostly ignore her. Finally, she asks me to leave. She doesn't give a reason, but she does say that she is very disappointed in me. I don't argue, I simply pack. As I'm heading out the door she says to me that I am just like my father. In that moment, I want to slap her. Instead, I leave without a word.

I sell my book collection to a used bookstore, which gets me enough money for a greyhound ticket to Anchorage, Alaska. To meet a girl I think that I love.

It is autumn, 2002. I am living in Salem, Oregon. My marriage is over. My child is lost.

The Third Sorrow is the Spymaster to Morgan La Fey in the Goblin Wars. Sarah has left Jareth, and now leads the Wyld Hunt. Morgan is making a bid for the castle, as the last loyal goblins hold fast against her army of tree knights. After weeks of stalemate, Jareth is forced to abdicate. Numerous players leave the game, including the one who originally portrayed Jareth A new age begins in the Goblin Kingdom.

It is winter, 2007. I am in Czechoslovakia. I came here to work on a film as a assistant production designer, but at the last moment, the original studio backed out, and the property was acquired by Columbia pictures, with production moved to Budapest. I am not hired on by the new company, as I am not a union member.

Jareth, played by a new player, has reclaimed his castle. Sarah is back by his side. The Third Sorrow is currently banished from the Goblin Kingdom, after teaming up with the Pied Piper to unleash a great plague in revenge for the death of his love. Cast into the Shadow Realm, he escapes by convincing a sorcerer on earth that he is a daemon who will grant him his greatest desires if he is summoned. He betrays the sorcerer, and eats out his eyes, gaining his knowledge. He is on earth, in the city of Rings, Nova Scotia. There he finds a changeling who has been raised as a human being, unaware of her true heritage. He takes her under his wing, and teaches her the how to use glamours, and the pathways in and out of Faerie.

It is autumn, 2013. I am on Bowen Island, just outside of Vancouver, BC.

Only 6 of the original players are left. Many others have come and gone. At one time we had several hundred, now only around a dozen. Posts are infrequent. Most often we simply talk of times gone by. We wonder what happened to certain people. The Third Sorrow sacrificed himself two years ago to stop the Archdemon Moloch from manifesting on the Physical plane. Jareth sacrificed himself to save Sarah. Sarah sacrificed herself to end the Tithe that Faery was obligated to pay in the souls of 9 humans to Hell each year. Everyone could sense the end coming, and everyone wanted to go out in a blaze of glory.

My new character is a wererat named Snickersnatch. He never ends up having much in the way of stories.

It is Spring, 2020. I still occasionally visit the Labyrinth forum. But now it is more a reminder of the past than anything. 20 years of adventures, a lifetime of epic stories that will never be told to the world outside. It is maintained now more as an archive than anything. A legacy of friendships, and imagination, and escapism. An online family closer than any relative I have in real life that has slowly drifted apart.

There are still some stories being told, but at a much different pace, with weeks or even months going by between replies.

Three days ago I contacted the original Sarah. I asked her if she had read the new Labyrinth Adventure Game. She said she didn't know about it. I gush about it for a while, and she is apparently convinced to buy it. Talks about running it for her kids.

Two days ago I post on OOC thread on the Labyrinth forum. I ask if anyone would be interested in me running them through the Adventure Game in the forum. I am surprised by the amount of replies. People I thought long-gone, that I hadn't seen post in years.

The character creation thread is starting to fill up...
 

redlemonginger

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Shadow of the Demon Lord

My reviews definitely won't be long ones.

To help you understand my tastes -


These are the games I've rated highly in the past: Barbarians of Lemuria, Dread, Dungeon World, Dark Heresy 2nd edition, and Stars Without Number.

These are the games I've rated low in the past: Savage Worlds, End of the World rpg, Pathfinder 1e

*Not all the games I've played, but just the ones I've had the strongest feelings about.


Sessions GMed using this system: 15

Overall Rating: 3/4 - I recommend this game.

Pros


- Creates interesting player characters mechanically. All the characters at my table have cool abilities that make them stand out and give them spotlight. The progression is well done and the players get a lot of cool options to choose from.

- The magic system is really great. All the traditions are very unique and make all the Mages and priest feel different from eachother. Also, the way that the spell uses are spread out per spell encourages the player to use a bunch of different ones instead of just spamming the same ones.

- I really enjoy having 4 attributes to choose from. It really cleans up the game and narrows the amount of things I have to call for as a GM. All the attributes feel balanced.

- The bestiary has great generic monster templates that are very handy for creating your own monsters.

- Healing in the system is well done. Characters feel heroic, but take days to regain all their health.

Cons

- The initiative system is a little uneccesary and superfluous. Might as well just have used group initiative.

- Boons and Banes are strictly worse than advantage and disadvantage from 5e. Adds more granularity, but takes away all the elegance.

- Attributes start at 10 with a 0 modifier. There's no point in having the 10, just make it 0. Derivative math is uneccesary and confusing.

- Spellcaster monsters don't have the spells they use written out, so you have to reference the spells section. This is awful. It always is. Please stop.

- Purely a combat game. Everything is focused around it and the game pushes you in that direction. Would like more non-combat abilities.
 
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