Friday, 22 September 2017

Wrestling with Burning Wheel in Vanaheim

Osculan of Nemedia
I wanted to see if I could get an episodic Hyborian campaign going. I originally considered the Conan RPG from Mongoose Publishing, then Iron Heroes, but looking at both of these, I've come to the conclusion that they now contain too much unnecessary crunch. There's too much number crunching slowing the game down. Playing with my kids, they love complexity, but there is something about the level based advancement of Iron Heroes that now seems to irritate some deep part of my gaming soul. I can't quite put my finger on it.

The kids, they like RuneQuest. Having played it once, they seem to like its absence of levels and access to magic. The plot of the first Hyborian adventure is now well-advanced in my notebook. Given I tend to work on adventures on the train or just before I go to sleep, I like rule books that are small and compact and easy to carry around. While the trend within the industry is towards colourful, glossy, artpacked hardbacks, one of these plus a laptop can be difficult to lug around to meetings in London.

My plot is set in Vanaheim. I've sketched it out, plus some of the main NPCs. It already sounds very political, but thinking back to some of Howard's original tales, they feature quite a bit of skulduggery and infighting between factions. The adventure also contains an excellent initial motivation for the heroes to be at Starkad's Great Hall, at the head of the fjord called Starkadsgarth.

I launched a previous Hyborian campaign using a Vanir raid into Asgard, similar to that mentioned in The Frost Giant's Daughter and Legion of the Dead. It was inspired by both. The new scenario again starts in the north lands, however, it seems to be inspired more by Series 1 of Vikings and A Fistful of Dollars. I'll see where it takes me. My initial idea was to not keep it in Vanaheim, but that, I think, I'll leave in the hands of players. There is opportunity to both remain in Vanaheim, or to leave.

I'm also aware that Dragonmeet is coming up in a couple of months. Last year I ran some Deadlands Noir there. The question is whether I run another game. They always seem a bit short of GMs, to be honest.

But that still leaves us with the rules system.

I'm torn between three, namely RuneQuest 2 (Mongoose Publishing), Burning Wheel and an Apocalypse World hack. I'm still reading and digesting Apocalypse World, which I actually quite like. I did consider Savage Worlds, because it does a great job with pulp settings, particularly the Beasts & Barbarians supplement, but for this game don't want to be burdened by miniatures, cards and chips.

To make my mind up, ever a fan of character generation systems, I may just decide to generate the same player character in all three systems and come to a final decision. Apocalypse World, by its very nature, does not really require character generation in advance, so here we'll be focusing on RuneQuest and Burning Wheel. I will have a go at Burning Wheel first.

The first pre-gen is Osculan. I see him a devotee of Mitra, up from Nemedia, traveling in the northern wastes to spread the word. He is a missionary, seeking to bring the light of Mitra into the lives of the Nordheimers, with mixed success. He has come to Starkadsgarth to preach.

Osculan of Hanumar, itinerant Nemedian preacher

Life paths (4) - Village Born, Pilgrim, Student, Zealous Convert

Age: 32

Will B5, Perception B3, Power B4, Forte B4, Agility B3, Speed B3, Circles B3, Resources B0

Health 4, Mortal Wound 10, Reflexes 3, Steel 6

Skills: Religious Rumour-wise B3, Read B3, Religious Diatribe B5, Doctrine B5, Road-wise B5, Write B4, Astrology B3, Shrine-wise B3, Rule of Law B3, Anatomy B3, Inconspicuous B5, History B3, Rhetoric B3, Symbology B3, City-wise B3, Doctrine-wise B4, Ancient Languages B3, Cudgel B3, Foreign Languages (Nordheimr) B3

Traits: Collector, Infallible Religious Logic, Righteous, Firm, Demagogue, Booming Voice, Driven, Inspirational, Plain-Faced

Affiliation: Mitra cult in Vanaheim (+1D)

Relationship: Gefion, wife of Fjolnir (covert convert) -4 RPs

Equipment: Traveling Gear, Pack Horse, Clothes, Astrology Instruments (Toolkit)

Beliefs: I will spread the light of Mitra among these ignorant savages. The way of violence is not the only way - I will use my wits and charm to persuade others. The nobles of Vanaheim will be my path to financial security.

Instincts: Keep my cudgel within reach at all times. Go to ground when fighting starts. Always make sure my horse is looked after - I don't fancy walking out of here.

Osculan is from Nemedia. Village born, he went on a pilgrimage which initially inspired him to follow a religious path. He studied in the Nemedian city of Hanumar but significantly has not become a priest, instead leaving university to become a wandering zealot. He has no Faith, however, so is often beset by doubts. In the last few years he has wandered north, beyond the Hyborian kingdoms into the lands of the Cimmerians and the Aesir. He keeps a cudgel on his person, but relies on his wits, knowledge and debating skills to get him out of tight spots. He is aware that true power in Vanaheim lies with the thanes, and it will be their families he must spend most time working on. Gefion is the wife of Fjolnir, brother of the recently deceased Starkad. Fjolnir is one of the thanes jockeying for the position of high king of the Vanir in his brother's stead. Osculan sees an opportunity here to increase his influence, wealth and prestige in the far flung north. As a secret convert, Gefion could prove useful.

As you can see, character generation in BW is quite involved. The characters it produces, however, are unique and in-depth. They are very hard to optimise and there is no such thing as a perfect build. The designer's objective is to produce more well-rounded player characters. I can see Osculan as someone who is a stranger to Vanaheim, but he has objectives, a mission, that go beyond simply acquiring wealth. It does take time to build a character like this, and I'd equate it more to Traveler or Shadowrun in this respect. I'm not sure some groups will have the patience for it, to be honest.

Burning Wheel is designed to produce a very different gaming experience from, say, RuneQuest. RQ is a much older game, and its possible failings as a system lie within that age. It was spawned in the very early days of RPGs, when they were evolving from war games. It has some great, great concepts, but I'm starting to feel that it is a beast of its time.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Review: Adventures in Middle-earth Players Guide

I've been down with the man flu from hell for the last few days, and am only just getting back on my feet. During my period of enforced convalescence, I have been reading Adventures in Middle-earth from Cubicle 7. Seasoned gamers will know Cubicle 7 have the license for a roleplaying game based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and to this end have already produced an excellent RPG called The One Ring.

Cubilce 7 have gone further now, uniting the Middle-earth license with the mechanics of the Dungeons & Dragons RPG for the first time. D&D has been through a bit of a rough patch since the 4th edition of the game was launched, and it ended up being outsold by Pathfinder, still arguably the heir to D&D's mantle, given the amount of people who play Pathfinder steadfastly, both here in the UK and around the world.

However, D&D has taken a lot of inspiration from Tolkien's works as well as those of other fantasy fiction writers, but there has never been an official combo of the two. Many dungeon masters have set their games in Middle-earth on an informal basis, but for the most part official Middle-earth RPGs have steered their own course. Back in the glory days of early RPGs, it was ICE's Middle-earth Roleplaying (MERP) that many gamers turned to for their Middle-earth fix.

Adventures in Midde-earth is a lovely looking hardback book designed for players primarily. It is illustrated by a range of very talented artists, foremost among them John Howe and Jon Hodgson, who do an excellent job of capturing the essential feel of the realms of Middle-earth, so important in a book like this. The original MERP traded heavily on the awesome art of Angus McBride, and it is good to see that money has been spent on getting the art right. It is a truly lovely book.

Adventures in Middle-earth represents a very different feel to D&D campaigns - it takes much of its inspiration from The One Ring, in that the cultures of the heroes a more important than in vanilla D&D. Each hero is a combination of culture, class, virtues and backgrounds. Cultures here are a bit more varied than in the original One Ring, as new cultures like the Dunedain, the Men of Bree and the Men of Minas Tirith have been added. Cultures act like races in D&D, but even if you are human, you culture will set you apart from  other men in Middle-earth. For example, Riders of Rohan get +1 to their Wisdom score, and can also raise two other attributes by +1.

All the D&D classes have been replaced with new Middle-earth classes. No wizards or clerics here. Classes on offer include Scholar, Slayer, Treasure Hunter (Burglar!), Wanderer, Warden and Warrior. Because magic in Middle-earth is more understated and works in more subtle ways, there is less scope here for player characters to run around frying everything with fireballs. Some classes seem to have archetypes they can choose from, as in the 5th edition D&D - for example the Treasure Hunter can choose between Agent ("The agent relies on charm as much as stealth or wit.") and Burglar ("You employ your dubious, if highly useful, skills to acquire things that others possess.")

Virtues are additional boons granted to some characters at 1st level, those from mannish cultures, as compensation for the other abilities non-human races begin with. Many are culture specific. At 4th level players of any race can pick a virtue rather than the attribute increase that can receive within the core D&D rules. The same goes for 8th, 12th, etc. There are some open virtues, that any player can use, and some cultural virtues, which are specific to your cultural background. For example, the Dunedain can choose Dauntless Guardians, which among other things, lets them detect undead and makes them more resistant to fear caused by undead. There's quite a choice here - even the non-humans have a good selection. Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain can choose from virtues like Broken Spells, Durin's Way and Old Hatred, among others. There are some truly wonderful ones here, like Merchant Prince, a virtue of the Men of the Lake:

"Your family's fortune is rising with the reopening of the trading routes that lead to the markets of the South and the East. This increased affluence has started to positively affect your adventuring life, as you may choose a servant from those employed in your household and have him join you in your next endeavour."
As with 5th edition D&D, there are also Middle-earth specific backgrounds to choose from. These let you roll on a table to provide your character with further dimensions and some flavour with which to roleplay by. I love some of these; they really feel like backgrounds from the pages of Tolkien: Doomed to Die, Driven From Home or Emissary Of Your People are all good ones. Apart from skill proficiencies they also bring with them additional background elements. Take Oathsworn for example:

"You have sworn a mighty oath, one that is now indelibly associated with your name. The oath itself should be both suitably epic and possible to accomplish...A mighty oath carries its own legend and you often find yourself receiving aid from those who want to help the legend or even become embroiled in it."

There are a LOT of backgrounds here, which is excellent.

The equipment section is filled with some superb examples of Middle-earth specific items. Middle-earth functions on a reassuring imperial coinage system, with 12 copper coins to the silver penny, and 20 silver pennies to the gold piece. Tolkien would have recognised this currency. A frugal standard of living costs three gold pieces for a year. "Frugal folk usually sleep in comfortable common halls (or tents, if nomadic) and eat the produce of their own lands and pastures." Characters can also receive cultural heirlooms as a possible virtue (no magic shops in Middle-earth): these include the likes of the tower shields of Dale, the great spears of the Beornings or the Star of the Dunedain. You can pick up one-off items like this as a beginning character, but you cannot BUY them; they are considered priceless family heirlooms. They are also distinct to cultural backgrounds.

Everything in this book seems to work towards conjuring up the atmosphere of the books and films. Adventures themselves in this game are meant to follow the same course as in the One Ring - much revolves around a journey or mission, usually into the wild. The default setting at the moment is the wilderness around Mirkwood in the immediate aftermath of the death of the dragon Smaug and the Battle of Five Armies at the end of The Hobbit. Five years have passed since then, providing opportunity for both Laketown and Dale to be rebuilt, and for the dwarves to reoccupy Erebor.

There are mechanics here for journeys in the wild, but at the same time adventurers must keep an eye out for corruption by the Shadow. Corruption can be picked up in a number of ways, and replaces alignment. Anguish, blighted places, misdeeds, tainted treasure, all can gain you corruption. With it comes misery, madness and degeneration, something heroes must strive to avoid. Boromir and indeed his father Denethor are prime examples of this from The Lord of the Rings. Characters want to avoid becoming Miserable, as this is the first step on the way to madness, making them prone to bouts of madness and bringing with it other penalties, like automatically failing Charisma checks. It sounds nasty, but it works to keep characters on the straight and narrow and beats the usual "Hey, you can't do that - you're Lawful." Instead a character picks up a few corruption points. Coward, thief, plunderer? Have three Shadow points. Once Shadow passes your Wisdom, you become Miserable. Oh yes. Thus it boils down to players what path they choose - they are not circumscribed by an alignment system but they take a risk in becoming more degenerate.

Each adventure in Middle-earth is considered to take the course of a year - characters are not full time adventurers. As in Glorantha, they are meant to be members of their communities as well. They have families and a stake in the world. They are not travelling murder hoboes for hire. They adventure, frequently, for a reason, even if they come from disparate backgrounds. Between adventure years, there is a fellowship phase. This boils down to rest and recovery at a nominated sanctuary:

"A number of locations in Middle-earth are considered Sanctuaries; special, safe places particularly suited to rest, recovery and training, usually overseen by a host willing to welcome travellers. At the beginning of a game, the only place the player heroes may consider a Sanctuary is the town of Esgaroth on the Long Lake..."

Fellowship phases are intended also to cover between adventure activities, like training, gaining new traits, healing corruption and researching lore. Generally this matches the winter phase, a time when characters will stick to civilised areas, when snow is on the ground and wild wargs are on the prowl.

Rangers of the North, by Jon Hodgson

The book concludes with some pre-generated characters to get you going. These are all 1st level examples of the new character classes, ready to go. If you want to actually run a game in Middle-earth you will also need the Loremasters Guide from Cubicle 7, which is now also out in print, as well as the current D&D Player's Handbook. You won't require the other core D&D books however, although they could come in useful.

In conclusion I really love what Cubicle 7 has achieved here. One of my criticisms of D&D as it currently stands has been the emphasis on combat to the detriment of other areas of high fantasy. This was very much the case with fourth edition, and while I appreciate the way fifth edition has embraced the generic, 'game for all games' model it needed, I'm delighted to see products like Adventures in Middle-earth really taking things to the next level. I'm looking forward to further releases in this line. If there is something that would bring me back to running D&D, Adventures in Middle-earth is it...

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Playing through Scenarios For All Ages

It is almost September. The kids have gone back to school today. The weather is getting colder. In the British Isles the rugby posts are going up, a sure sign that winter is coming, as they say in Game of Thrones.

I'm launching a number of projects at home this autumn, largely to distract myself from the fact that the season is drawing to a close. To run in concert with these, I'm also going to see if I can launch some more ambitious gaming projects which will hopefully also mean I'll not need to spend more money on the latest shiny things to come out of the games industry over the next 12 months. The emphasis is going to be on playing with what I have already, rather than buying more game books and miniatures (although the new Star Wars skirmish game from FFG looks intriguing). That's the plan anyway. It is an exercise in self-discipline for the most part.

On the miniatures front, I've been inspired by Ross Macfarlane's blog to try to achieve what he did in 2008-09, namely play through the entire series of wargames scenarios contained in Charles Grant and Stuart Asquith's Scenarios For All Ages. This contains 52 wargames scenarios, ostensibly one for every week of the year. Macfarlane played them in sequence, achieving his goal within 14 months.

I realise there is absolutely no way on this planet I will make it anywhere near this. I'd be lucky to get one done every month. However, playing one a month would take me just over four years. This seems like rather a long term prospect. Instead of setting myself the goal of achieving something within a specific time period, I'll therefore try to focus simply on hitting the goal of the complete 52 games.

First steps will be to get the first scenario played - 'Attack On A Prepared Position'. For this I think we'll be using my Middle-earth armies, which recently had an outing for the Battle of the Fords of the Isen. However, I was not completely happy with the rules we used there, The War of the Ring from Games Workshop. We slightly mis-interpreted the casualty rules, leading to marginally more resilience on the part of both sides, and a consequently longer game. But that aside, regular opponent Sebastian was not bowled over by them [American English = disliked them], and so we will look further afield.

The Enemy Within

Work is going to make it harder for me to attend regular gaming sessions for the rest of this year, although I will see what I can do about being a semi-regular attendee. In the meantime, I'm going to try to set myself another, likely overly ambitious RPG project. This will be to run The Enemy Within, the epic old school Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign with an ad hoc, scratch group of players. Achieving this will be very challenging, giving conflicting schedules, etc, but I'm determined to give it a go.

The objective will be to run it using the Zweihander rules, which are in the process of being shipped from the US as I write, and are now available in some US stores. Zweihander was conceived as a successor to WFRP 2.0, especially once FFG took the third edition of the game in a new direction rules-wise.

Exactly how much progress I make with TEW, as it is known, remains to be seen. I will chronicle what I manage to achieve on this blog, possibly with photo or two if any emerge.

I never managed to get my hands on the final piece of the TEW saga, The Empire In Flames, when it was first out, and IIRC Hogshead never managed to publish it when they re-published the adventures in the 1990s. Hence, failing to find a copy, I may re-write my own ending. But we need to get there first!

Viscounts and Vagabonds

Finally, I'm going to have a stab at writing my own RPG. This will be a lengthy work in progress. The idea is to produce a system capable of yielding short, ribald escapades in Georgian England, involving characters that generally leave a lot to be desired, both in morals and ambitions.

What has plagued me thus far is the core mechanic. Once I get that sorted out, and am actually able to produce a test adventure, then perhaps we can make a little more progress. At the moment I'm toying with four main social classes which serve as the background for each character - these work out as the Landed, the Educated, the Rogue and the Labourer. Each type provides access to a range of skills and sub-abilities unique to that stratum of Georgian society.

I have been working on the premise that characters will have servants or sidekicks, who are in turn managed by other players. However, I am inclined to ditch this in favour of a vice mechanic which again allows other players to mess with your character's destiny. This will likely not be in the alpha play test, regardless, or may be an optional extra.

There's quite a bit here to be getting on with, as I'm sure you can imagine. Just how much success I will have with any of this is anybody's guess. Do come back to see if I've made any further progress or been distracted with a new shiny.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Frontier Cthulhu - a review

Frontier Cthulhu is a collection of short stories published by Chaosium as part of its Cthulhu fiction line in 2007. At the time Chaosium was pumping out short story anthologies on an almost monthly basis, having already run out collections of the classic Cthulhu Mythos stories oriented around particular themes or writers (e.g. The Hastur Cycle). Frontier Cthulhu sets out an interesting premise, namely a collection of Mythos tales about the American frontier. Sadly, I've given up reading it because it is rubbish.

I may be doing a disservice to some of the later stories, but I've read enough of them now to conclude that the overall level of writing here is desperate. I got as far as William Jones' 'They Who Dwell Below' before hurling the book down in utter frustration. I apologise then to Scott Lette et al, who may have produced something superior in the second half, and perhaps their work may see the light of day in future collections that are not burdened with the dross that begins Frontier Cthulhu, but even if some of them are brilliant, they will not be able to support the cover price of this travesty.

Some of these stories have been published before, and none of these writers are debut writers, but the quality of the fiction is poor. One starts to realise why H. P. Lovecraft was such a master of his craft as he is obviously hard to emulate.

Frontier Cthulhu presents its tales in chronological order. It kicks off with 'The Long Road Home' by Paul Melniczek, which uses the topic of the first Viking explorers in the New World. Fair enough - good idea. But from the off Melniczek's Vikings don't feel like vikings, but more some genetic medieval personalities you might expect to come across in Skyrim. Next, they quickly blunder through an inter-dimensional rift, and spend most of the story wandering around, being picked off by an enormous Great Old One, which then gets eaten by an even bigger Great Old One. Then, more by luck than judgement, the survivors escape. That's it, really. This could have been written so much better, as the actual subject of vikings in North America is extremely interesting, and I'd readily refer readers to Tom Holt's Meadowland, which does a vastly superior job than Melniczek does.

Angeline Hawkes gets the topic of the mysterious disappearance of the English colony at Roanoke as her subject, but again, 'In Waters Lost The Black Ones Sleep' leaves much to be desired. It starts well enough, and is disturbing in parts, but the reasons for the colonists' disappearance are a little prosaic, and the ending, well the ending is just desperate. So much more could have been achieved with this subject matter, but no, squandered. A big sea monster ate them. Yup.

Lee Clark Zumpe writes on the French & Indian War, but his tale of the early frontier war features two monster hunters, one of whom is a professional hunter, over 100 years old, on the trail of a sorceror who has set up his own cult just beyond the edge of civilization. Imagine the film The Last of the Mohicans directed in the spirit of Aliens, and you get a good idea of the travesty that is 'Where Men Had Seldom Trod'. Just get a load of this:

"We are perhaps hours away from a confrontation that will certainly end in chaos and indiscriminate killing." Greenheath patted his Kaintuck rifle, acknowledging its willingness to serve. He treated his weapon with reverence and fidelity. He preferred its accuracy to the outmoded precision of his partner's Brown Bess. Its sleek custom design - from its long octagonal barrel and small bore, to its stock made from tiger maple - lent it a quality of audaciousness.

Give me strength.

I could go on, but I won't, other than to mention 'Something To Hold The Door Closed' by Lon Prater. While not an outstanding tale, this is what I would expect of the bulk of the stories in Frontier Cthulhu in terms of  an original plot, setting, and insight into life on the frontier. Prater takes actual events from the North Carolina Gold Rush of 1795 and then injects an element of the Mythos into them. Perhaps this is why his characters, ordinary farmers trying to make a Christian living on the frontier, come across as more realistic. Their daily lives are invaded by the Mythos in a subtle and deadly way - no 200 hundred foot tall Great Old Ones stomping around here, or professional monster killers hacking their way through an army of cultists. This is what a Mythos tale ought to be. But Prater's effort is the exception that proves the rule in this collection - I persevered because of this story, but I finally gave up at 'They Who Dwell Below' by William Jones.

Oh. My. God. Jones writes about two notorious gunfighters from Cheyenne, both American Civil War veterans who - you guessed it - fought on opposite sides. They are hired by an enigmatic occultist to explore a huge maze of tunnels under Oklahoma. The entire story is set in the tunnels. All of it. Take a couple of cowboys, dump them into the plot of Descent, and you're not far off it. But why, why? The American West was so full of its own brand of drama and colour, deeply ingrained with betrayal, blood and horror. Surely you don't need to locate your entire tale in some tunnels under the ground, which have nothing to do with the Old West?

The looming darkness reminded Kane of the nights he'd spent in Georgia during the war. It was called Sherman's March, but it was plain butchery. He'd been young then, and did things a man ought not to. Things that haunted him every day of his life. Now it felt as though all those years of nightmares had come together and were prowling in the darkness.

Do yourself a favour. You've got the one life. Go read something with literary merit. Don't bother with this one. I've got some other Chaosium collections to read still on the shelf, and sincerely, I'm praying they're better than this.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Another Murder At Flaxton

A Murder At Flaxton was the first Dungeons and Dragons scenario I ran as a DM that demonstrated to me that there was more to RPGs than dungeon exploration. I should have taken this on board earlier, with The Keep On The Borderlands, that early TSR classic, which featured a fairly detailed human settlement with its own scope for adventures, but it was Flaxton which proved to be the real eye opener for me, back in 1985. Warning - spoilers occur in this article, so avoid it if you think you might be in danger of participating as a player in a scenario which is older than many sovereign nations now.

I have run it again, this summer, a mere 32 years later! It has aged a little, but is still great fun. The scenario is written for low level characters and was one of a series of very atmospheric low level adventures which appeared in White Dwarf magazine in 1984-85. It features a small fishing village and a trio of dastardly smugglers who have murdered a law enforcement official just passing through their town and are now trying to cover their tracks, while keeping their operations running of course. This is a difficult juggling act for the smugglers, let alone the DM! The PCs are assigned the role of finding out who is responsible for the murder, and the disappearance of three constables sent to kick start the investigation.

I largely decided to play this out of a sense of pure nostalgia, and also because we had such a good time adventuring in Apple Lane over Christmas, using Mongoose Publishing's RuneQuest rules (now reborn as Legend). Trips down memory lane can be entertaining.

For my return to Flaxton I used Lamentations of the Flame Princess, largely because Labyrinth Lord was probably a little too basic, and also because the adventure was originally written for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and I needed something with a little more granularity. This was my first game using Lamentations, and Flaxton suited the Lamentations oeuvre very well, as the latter leans towards games set more in a grim, dark 17th century environment. There are no monsters in this adventure, unless you count the canine encounters and only one non-human character, so the lack of a bestiary for Lamentations would not be an issue either.

We used four starting characters, with the players picking a fighter, cleric, magic user and specialist (this is the thief in Lamentations, but it is configured a little differently from the traditional 1980s AD&D thief). Nobody bothered with any of the non-human classes on offer, which intrigued me.

The vulnerability of these novice characters is high, of course, and while Flaxton does not involve adventuring in the traditional hostile environment of D&D games, it can prove dangerous. The smugglers are higher level than the PCs, their leader is 5th level, and they have scope for additional back up from a 5th level pirate and her war dog. However, the game begins with the PCs poking around Flaxton trying to figure out what is going on, chatting with a wide range of NPCs and squirreling out the truth. There is no course of events here - like the best scenarios the bad guys are really going to react to the activities of the players, and for the most part just want to keep their heads down and maintain their criminal network.

Eventually it is going to kick off - in this case the PCs finally decided something suspicious was going on at the local inn, and that its proprietor was more than he claimed to be. By sneaking around at night, they managed to break into the inn's cellar, which then led them to the smugglers' underground cove. However, they were not quiet enough. I had to improvise a bit, as unlike Pathfinder, Lamentations does not have rules for everything, and the skill system only allows the specialist character to sneak consistently. I frequently called for attribute checks on 1d20 - e.g. DEX rolls when trying to open a trap door quietly in the middle of the night, less than 20 feet from a sleeping smuggler.

Once the smugglers reacted, they faced a choice between quietly taking care of the heroes or simply bugging out. The latter is always an option, but first they tried to kill/capture the party. One adventurer was already successfully drugged using spiked brandy, so the group was down to three when the smugglers ambushed them. One of the PCs was kitted out with flintlock pistols - I have the rules for these on a book mark kindly given to me by the author of Lamentations at Dragonmeet a couple of years ago - and these proved useful in the fight. In the end, I declined to equip any NPCs with firearms, and stuck with their original AD&D load out, which, combined with their magic, was nearly good enough to wipe the party out.

Following an unsuccessful attempt to kill the PCs, which resulted in the deaths of two smugglers, and left one PC on zero hit points, the smugglers' leader decided to leave town by boat, taking the drugged PC with him (which also happened to be the party's cleric - note that one PC was now at zero hit points and thus surplus to requirements). The adventurers were down to their specialist and their magic user, who only had an enlarge spell to hand. They gave chase by rousting the village chandler out of his bed and taking one of his boats, offering him silver to help them to get out to the island in the bay, which they now correctly surmised might have something to do with the plot. There followed a second encounter with smugglers, which this time nearly wiped the remaining adventurers out, but they inflicted enough damage on the criminals that they decided to flee rather than stick around.

Lamentations includes rules for morale, yes, morale. In my earliest D&D games, we used morale rules regularly. Lamentations has these. I like morale rules. That may be because I also play wargames, and wargamers like morale rules - well almost all wargamers, maybe not naval wargamers.

I added morale to the existing NPC stats by simply rolling 2d6. This gave me a pirate leader with a morale of 5 who was therefore somewhat flighty, and despite being in a winning position, decided not to stick around once the blood started flowing. As she was a 5th level fighter, this helped the PCs considerably when she exited stage left. The adventurers were also aided by their drugged cleric, previously a prisoner of the pirates, coming around at just the right time to administer cure light wounds. Morale injected an interesting element into the game; it sometimes seems sadly lacking in RPGs, where adventurers expect encounters to be sufficiently balanced to allow them to win every battle, and where the opposition dutifully fights to the last man (or orc).

Everyone had a great time. A Murder At Flaxton is an interesting little scenario. It has aged a little, but not much, and seems ideal for starting parties. There is also enough loot here to generate the XP an old school group needs to get to 2nd level. I still heartily recommend it as a campaign starter if you can find a copy.

As a rules set, Lamentations leaves plenty of gaps that the GM must fill when questions occur about "how do I do X"? In some respects it feels more like a recommended WAY of playing rather than a pure rules set. Players of more detailed, comprehensive rules will expect a mechanic when one does not exist. The limited skills system is largely there to help the specialist look good, but often you find it is the other characters in dire situations that are dealing with the specialist's tasks. This may be partly the fault of our being used to more recent rules systems, and forgetting that the specialist is there for a reason - namely doing all the sneaking and scouting, while players have an expectation that they should ALL be able to sneak and scout.

There is a lot to like about Lamentations - for example, the weird elements, the crazy spell descriptions, the encumberance rules, the black powder weapons - but I think my players, given the choice, would opt for Pathfinder or RuneQuest. We may return to Lamentations in the near future regardless, as there has been considerable investment in the characters and in Flaxton itself.