Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Book of the Month: A Gentleman's Game, by Greg Rucka

Readers may already know Greg Rucka from his graphic novel, White Out, about murder in the Antarctic, which was subsequently turned into a feature film by Dominic Sena. Like White Out, A Gentleman's Game features a strong central female character, in this case Tara Chase, a Minder for the UK's Secret Intelligence Service (aka SIS or MI6).

Tara Chase first made her debt as a character in the comic series Queen & Country, the first two collected volumes of which I would highly recommend. Rucka wrote the script for these, although I have to say the art was so-so and the third volume was really inferior to the first two. In it Chase is a Minder, basically an operative for MI6 who stays in London but then is sent overseas to carry out special operations for the Firm which its on site agents are not trained for. Frequently this involves assassination, but not always.

Deadlier than the male.
There are always three Minders on stand by in the comics, and by the time we reach A Gentleman's Game, Tara has been promoted up to Minder One, making her the senior operative. Unlike Queen & Country, A Gentleman's Game is a novel, so there are no pictures to look at. Given the unprepossessing art in the comics, this is no great loss.

AGG was published in 2004, which makes it somewhat apocryphal, as it begins with a terrorist atrocity on the London underground, perpetrated by a trio of suicide bombers. The similarities with what actually happened in July 2005, a year later, are disturbing, right down to one of the same subway stations - King's Cross - being targeted.

AGG picks up where Queen & Country left off, with Tara now in the Minder One hot seat as the UK government considers its response, and eventually alights on a plan to assassinate a radical cleric in Yemen. However, the book is not just about Chase, but also tracks the progress of a young English Muslim convert, from religious scholar in Egypt, through to his translation into a jihadi in Saudi Arabia. The two plots run parallel with each other, although the two characters' lives intersect only twice.

AGG is a gritty book - the turf wars between the various foreign intelligence agencies are colourful, to say the least, as is the ongoing rivalry between SIS and the Secret Service (aka MI6), inevitably leading to a violent clash at Ashford International station.

It is a well-written book, and the politics and motivations of the factions involved ring true to me; AGG spends a lot of time inside the jihadi groups in Saudi and Yemen, and Rucka, an American, has obviously spent a lot of time reading up on them post-911. It is a little dated however - only three years after 9/11, Osama Bin Laden is still alive and the war in Iraq is ongoing.

There are no James Bond antics here, no gadgets. Warfare is carried out frequently at close quarters - a .22 pistol is preferred for an assassination to anything bigger in one case, and in another someone is killed with a rolled up newspaper! Having said that, when you're outnumbered 40 to 1, nothing beats a Claymore mine.

The Minders in AGG are a closely knit team, perhaps too closely knit, and seem to worship their boss Croker, who spends most of his time chain smoking and drinking malt whisky in his office, that's when he's not getting into fights with his bosses, or trading information with Angela Cheng, the head of CIA station in London, who herself has little better to do than keep tabs on MI6. British intelligence is generally presented as being buffeted between the whims of Downing Street and the commercial interests of UK companies in the Middle East, not to mention the desires of the CIA.

In all this Mossad emerges smelling of roses, as they initially pick up vital information on the location of the target, which they try to trade for a follow up hit on an Egyptian terrorist. The Israelis are painted by Rucka as the most reasonable of a bad bunch, generally cooperative, keen to get results, under-financed and generally frustrated by the constraints imposed upon them by the Americans. The Mossad agents Landau and Borosovsky steal the show as a double act, and ought to get their own series on the strength of this outing.

The Minders themselves are an odd mix; Croker admits they are hard to find, and that those most qualified for the job are frequently bright enough to decline it. Not all come from a military background, some have criminal records, and they're not above a bit of burglary, vandalism and other riotous behavior in their spare time. Rucka portrays them as psychologically messed up, highly trained but largely expendable human weapons who can be plausibly denied if they end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. This translates itself into individuals with an on again, off again relationship with their superiors, and a limited life expectancy in the field.

Is it worth reading? I'd say only if you read the comics and like those enough to continue. If not, then don't bother with A Gentleman's Game.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Stoker: First Blood - The Thrilling Conclusion!

This is a summary of a game of Night's Black Agents which I refereed this month. I'm posting this because I was not able to find any report of an actual play of the Stoker: First Blood adventure from the Edom Files collection. This contains SPOILERS. Do not read if you think you might be playing this scenario. If you are planning to umpire it, of course, it could be useful, as I will finish up with some observations. If you have not read the earlier chapters, you can start here.

The Village of Arbanasi, Ottoman Bulgaria, 1877

The Widow of Ekim Dal
As the sun began to sink behind the Balkan Mountains, the adventurers decided the time had come to beat a hasty retreat to the old mosque. Here they found the old imam was still present. Further work with him provided little else, other than that he found the wife of Ekim Dal impossible to resist. The heroes closed and barred the doors of the mosque and prayed they would be overlooked. As the sun went down, however, a ground mist arose and soon obscured outside visibility to less than 10 feet. Then, soft, feminine footsteps were heard to circle the building. It was not looking good.

In this sort of situation, there is little to do but pray for daylight. Stoker was the first to notice that the old imam had stopped muttering and was now sitting upright, clearly examining each of them in turn with renewed lucidity. The major quickly took steps to have the ancient man bound and blind folded. It was then they head a woman's voice speaking to them from beyond the door.

"Why do you forsake my hospitality, O strangers from the West," came a lilting voice in Turkish. "Why reject me and seek to flee my house?"

But there was no way anyone was going to open that door. Even when the earth started to shake and parts of the roof fell in. Plaster came away from the walls. Vambery crouched praying with the Koran held in front of him. Then the doors were burst inward and standing on the threshold of the building was a slight woman in the traditional black outer garb of an Ottoman noblewoman. She looked about 30 years old, with dark, striking Mediterranean features. She extended one hand out to the men in the mosque.

Firstly, Crosse began to suddenly feel tired and passed out on the floor. Then Vambery started forward suddenly, moving with glassy-eyed gait in the direction of the exit. "Come to me," whispered the vampire.

"Restrain him somebody!" barked Major Stoker, both pistols drawn and pointing at the creature, his teeth gritted against its malign psychic influence.

Forbes reached and seized Vambery before he could leave the mosque. The Hungarian struggled weakly but the journalist hung onto him desperately. The woman in the doorway hissed furiously. Then she turned, and retreated from them back into the mist. Vambery suddenly came back to his senses.

With the vampire gone, so the mist outside the mosque began to dissipate. Eventually it cleared away completely. The old imam was now sleeping, no longer struggling against his bonds. The night passed.

Standing watch at a window at about two o'clock in the morning, Stoker spotted a figure in the distance on the edge of the village. He was standing on the opposite side of the stream that flowed along the northern edge of the settlement. He looked like a Turkish soldier, wearing the uniform of an officer. He remained staring fixedly at the mansion for some two hours. Then, at the first crow of a cock in Arbanasi, he turned and began walking away into the mountains, eventually vanishing between the ruins of the old Bulgarian fort.

With the morning, the team crept gingerly out of the mosque and basked in the sunshine. Relieved they were still alive, they resolved to get out of Arbanasi on foot. But first they ransacked the buildings in the village for lamp oil. Enough was found to splash liberally around the foundations of the house.

Major Stoker then strode forward and set light to the vampire's mansion. As it went up in flames, the men stood back, armed and ready. Screams and cries of alarm were heard from within. Then two of the eunuchs came running out of the front door as the flames licked high up the sides of the mansion. Stoker and Forbes opened fire on them immediately and neither made it further than a few yards. The rest of the inhabitants were burned alive in the conflagration [Stability checks all round for this one - but they stood their ground].

With the mansion now collapsing in on itself, and with no other survivors emerging, the adventurers heard the sound of hooves. From the south, in the direction of Tirnova, came a column of Russian cavalry, Cossacks by the look of them, several dozen strong. Quickly, the British fled over the stone wall into the peach orchards, where they hid and watched the Russian scouts from a safe distance.

The Cossacks ransacked the village while some officers watched the burning building curiously and inspected the dead eunuchs in front of it. Eventually the Russians departed, heading north into the Hainkoi pass.

The party emerged from their hiding places in the orchard and set off cautiously down the road, heading south to Tirnova. Eventually they ran into another Russian patrol which took them prisoner. As neutrals in the conflict, however, they could look forward to a short stay in Russian custody before their eventual release, probably in Romania.

Final thoughts on Stoker - First Blood

This is probably what you would call a score draw in the vampire hunting business. The adventure is designed to serve as a back story component which can potentially be accessed by agents in a Dracula Dossier campaign. The idea is you would take a break from the main campaign when written evidence of the above adventure is discovered and play through this one shot, before returning to the principal campaign arc.

The adventure distills into two core encounters with the undead. It is fairly flexible, although most groups will likely visit the Devil's Cave before going on to Arbanasi. By the time they do reach the village, they will probably already be pretty suspicious of Ekim Dal's widow.

In my game, neither of the vampires were killed. Ekim Dal did not need to engage, as his ghouls were more than enough of a challenge for the party, while his wife exhausted her Aberrance trying to winkle the party out of their fortified position in the mosque.

Once ensconced in the mosque, they proved to be difficult to get out, particularly as she had spent points on covering her approach with mist. She could have used more Aberrance  to collapse the mosque but that would have potentially killed all inside, which was something she was seeking to avoid.

The scenario takes a while to get moving, as the party heads across Bulgaria, but it helps if a group is new to Gumshoe to get them up to speed on the mechanics before anything deadly happens to them. We probably spent 90 minutes of game time before they entered the Devil's Cave.

This is not a brilliant scenario. The scenes in Arbanasi can be very tense for the players. Failing to stop the ghouls in the cave might have been frustrating, but then again, this is Night's Black Agents - player characters cannot expect to win every battle they undertake. My other worry is that IF a party should succeed against the ghouls AND Ekim Dal, which I accept is unlikely, there may be no reason to go to Arbanasi at all. You may be left with one big fight in the Devil's Cave, and that would be that.

I need to do my homework on the combat rules in NBA, which are a good deal more detailed than Trail of Cthulhu or The Esoterrorists. The fight in the cave could have been run with much more granular action than it was; I'm not sure how much value it would have added. I still remain in two minds about Gumshoe and its ability to manage action scenes properly. NBA has more emphasis on spectacular fights, but Gumshoe was written for a more investigative game than this, I suspect.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Stoker: First Blood - The Attack of the Damned

This is a summary of a game of Night's Black Agents which I refereed this month. I'm posting this because I was not able to find any report of an actual play of the Stoker: First Blood adventure from the Edom Files collection. This contains SPOILERS. Do not read if you think you might be playing this scenario. If you are planning to umpire it, of course, it could be useful, as I will finish up with some observations.

Within the Devil's Cave, Ottoman Bulgaria, 1877

A resident of the Devil's Cave?
If you have not read the previous events and the summary of the player characters involved, go do it now. We left our heroes exploring the Devil's Cave, or Iblis Magara as it is known by the Circassian locals. They were distracted by the discovery of a sinkhole when they were rushed by two creatures, attacking from up the passage they had just come up.

Two evil looking humanoids, clad in wretched, blood-stained rags, with long claws and sharp teeth, they were unkempt and obviously dead, with large wounds on their necks, probably from a blade of some description. They attacked Vambery and Forbes, raking Forbes badly before the two men turned to grapple with them.

Vambery was completely unarmed, and staggered away, grappling for the tattered Koran he had on his person. Forbes opened fired with his pistol, hitting one of the ghouls but not stopping it. As he ducked and dived, two more ghouls appeared from deeper in the caves and charged. Stoker saw them coming and drawing both his pistols, opened fire on them, but again, they seemed relatively impervious to gunfire. The bullets were punching holes in them, and they were obviously feeling the impact, but still they came on.

One of the first pair of ghouls now climbed up the wall and along the ceiling, seemingly oblivious to the slippery limestone surface, and dropped down onto Forbes. Luckily for him, while it knocked him to the ground, the ghoul hurt itself too [bad rolling by the GM] and this delayed it enough for Forbes to shoot it in the chest, point blank. The ghoul howled in pain and began trying to savage the journalist's neck, whereupon he shot it in the head and it expired on top of him. A small victory for the press in the Balkans!

The manacled Turkish prisoner, Amanoglu, found all this too much to bear [failed Stability check] and sprang into the sinkhole, disappearing from sight with a scream. Crosse got off a shot with his rifle, to little good, and then grappled with the creatures. He was quickly savaged by the thing's evil looking claws and passed out, toppling backwards into the sinkhole.

Vambery was now on his knees, brandishing the Koran in one hand and the prayer beads in the other. He pressed the beads against the undead monstrosity, but sadly to no avail. Stoker, now badly hurt and finding it difficult to stay conscious, turned and dropped into the sinkhole rather than face the horrors any longer. With this Vambery and Forbes decided to follow their companions and also jumped in as yet another ghoul loomed out of the shadows.

Hitting the water, they were quickly swept along by an underground stream. In what seemed like a matter of only minutes, during which some of our heroes panicked from claustrophobia and a sense of drowning, the stream spewed the adventurers out via a waterfall into a small mountain lake. There was no sign of Amanoglu who, weighed down with his iron manacles, must have drowned under the mountain somewhere. Crosse was in a bad way, as was Stoker. Vambery managed to bring Stoker round, and he worked on Crosse, but it was obvious that the geologist needed rest and had lost a lot of blood. Stoker himself was not much better.

Looking out, they saw they were on the side of a mountain, facing northwest towards the Danube plain. Orchards with peach trees led down to a small village dominated by a large mansion built in the Ottoman style and a cemetary. Apart from the odd goat and chicken, nothing was moving in the afternoon sunshine. In the far distance they could see the road to Tirnova.

The Village of Arbanasi

The first order of the day was to get the wounded down the hill to the village and seek help. An old man was spotted asleep in the shade of a tomb in the graveyard. He turned out to be some kind of servant and brought them to the large house they had seen. It was obvious from the distance that the building and suffered some minor damage, possibly from an earthquake.

The player characters met the chief eunuch in charge of the household, who introduced himself as Hasan. He and his trio of eunuch assistants welcomed the foreigners and installed them in the first floor of the house which overlooked a central gallery. They brought them water, coffee and food and the men washed and dressed their wounds and sought to recover. The eunuchs explained that the house belonged to Ekim Dal, but that the local governor disappeared mysteriously last year during the Bulgarian rebellion. Now it is managed by his widow, who is currently resting, but is expected to join them for dinner. Having already encountered the undead once today, the adventurers immediately became suspicious. A quick check of the rooms they had access to revealed an absence of mirrors too.

Vambery and Stoker decided it was time to nose around. By this stage Crosse had passed out from his wounds. Vambery had a stroll around the village looking for horses or a cart they could use to escape Arbanasi before nightfall, as the village was more than 10 miles on foot in rugged mountain terrain from Tirnova. There was hardly a soul left in the village, most having already fled south. Vambery discovered a small mosque, little more than one room, within which he found an ancient imam, at least 90 years old. The man was kneeling on the floor muttering to himself about 'the lady'. He seemed out of sorts. Vambery also noticed that all the religious symbols had been stripped from the mosque.

Returning to the mansion, Vambery investigated the library in the house. Here he found evidence that the ruined fortress they could see across the valley had been used by a medieval Bulgarian clan called the Brotherhood of the Dragon in the 15th century. A book in Bulgarian also told of a strange 'blood curse' that emerged from the ground in the area, and mentioned the Devil's Cave as one potential location of such a hazard. Vambery also now heard the faint sound of a baby crying somewhere in the house.

Upon further investigation, the sound of the baby seemed to be coming from the seraglio within the house, which was off limits to the men. The entrance to the seraglio was locked but Forbes was able to pick the lock and gain ingress. He stole through the rooms and spotted a woman sitting by the window with an infant of about two: she was signing to it in a language that was not Bulgarian or Turkish. Forbes retreated unseen and repeated some of the words she was using to Vambery, who identified it as Romanian.

It was now approaching evening. A young serving girl was setting the table downstairs for dinner...for six people. The sun was beginning to go down behind the mountains...

Next: The Mistress of Arbanasi appears...and the dreadful conclusion of our epic tale!

Monday, 4 December 2017

Actual play Night's Black Agents - Stoker: First Blood

The following is a summary of an actual play session of Night's Black Agents using the Stoker - First Blood adventure contained in the Edom Files collection from Pelgrane Press. It is jam packed with spoilers - you have been warned.

The Cast:

Major George Stoker - an Irish doctor and army officer, on assignment to the Red Crescent military hospital at Shipka, Bulgaria

Armin Vambery - a Hungarian linguist and author, an expert on the Near East and Central Asia and a trusted friend of the Turkish authorities

Archibald Forbes - a British journalist and seeker of truth

Andrew Crosse - a British geologist hoping to extend his knowledge of the little-known Bulgarian geological corpus

The Road to the Devil

Major George Stoker MD
The year is 1877. The place is Constantinople. The team is assembled by Osman Hamdi Bey, a Turkish 'government official' with a taste for Western painting, who wants them to investigate rumours of a possible atrocity carried out by Bulgarian nationalists against Turkish civilians in the Balkan Mountains. Following an unsuccessful revolt by Bulgarians against Turkish rule the previous year, Russia is mobilising to invade Bulgaria and liberate it from the Ottomans. The British government does not want to see Russia extending its influence around the Black Sea and potentially gaining control over the Bosphorous. Both the British and the Turks want some evidence of Bulgarian atrocities to offset the anti-Ottoman coverage in the British newspapers. Enter the player characters, who are considered more credible than the Turks.

The group takes a train from Constantinople to the village of Hermanli where they rendezvous with bashi bazouk Turkish light cavalry led by Demir Akinji. The Turks have with them a prisoner who knows the way to the cave where a massacre is said to have taken place. A hard ride takes them on to Jeni Zagra, during which Vambery suffers horribly keeping up with the Turks and has to be treated for saddle sores by Stoker. The Irishman forms a dim view of the Turks whom he reckons are not to be trusted in a stand up fight.

At Jeni Zagra Vambery and Stoker speak with the prisoner, Kerem Amanoglu; in exchange for food he tells them he is a deserter from the Turkish army. His unit was ambushed and almost wiped out by Bulgarian rebels south of Tirnova a few months previously. He sought refuge in a cave in the mountains where he saw the bodies of men slain by the Bulgarians, six in total. He fled in terror and was later captured by the Turkish army and charged with desertion.

Over dinner Akinji advises the foreigners to take the Shipka pass road, as he fears the shorter route over the rugged Hainkoi pass may lead them into contact with Bulgarian rebels. He says these Bulgarians are evil, cursed men, beyond the gaze of God. When they are slain, he claims, their flesh burns from their bones. He calls them the Dragon Brothers. Forbes says he thinks the Turkish soldier is exaggerating and at the very least has no experience of such things. Stoker posts sentries at the inn they are staying at, but it is an uneventful night.

The next day the British decide to take Akinji's advice and ride to Shipka. It is a hard ride but they cope with it better than the previous day. At Shipka they find a large Turkish encampment. Stoker reports in at the military hospital and Vambery speaks with refugees fleeing south through the pass. They tell him that many peasants are fleeing from Tirnova south through the Hankoi pass or seeking refuge at the estate of the local Turkish aristocrat, Ekim Dal, which lies south of Tirnova. The characters manage to acquire weapons from the Turks - Stoker equips himself with two revolvers while Crosse arms himself with a Peabody-Martini and makes some flares. Sadly nobody trusts Vambery with a gun.

The next day the travelers head south to Tirnova, which they reach in a day. Here they hear the sound of the Russian guns pounding the Turkish fortresses on the Danube. There is a small unit of surly Turkish soldiers occupying a fort. Vambery notices that there are few Muslims left in the town, and that they are mainly Circassians, not Turks (exiled from Russia 15 years earlier). Many seem to be packing up and getting ready to leave.

Staying at the local hostelry, called the House of Mustafa, Vambery chats with some of the Circassians who are still there. They tell him local landholder Ekim Dal has disappeared during the recent Bulgarian revolt along with some of his men. Vambery also learns Dal was at loggerheads with his wife who now remains at the family estate in Arbanasi, as she had not borne him a child. The locals have heard of the cave that Amanoglu visited - it is called the Devil's Cave and is thought to be cursed.

The Devil's Cave

The next day Amanoglu leads the group, accompanied by their Turkish escorts, into the foothills south of Tirnova, where he shows them to the entrance of the Devil's Cave, called by the locals Iblis Magara. Crosse goes in first and Stoker insists on bringing along Amanoglu, who is still manacled. The Turkish soldiers prudently elect to stay outside. Crosse notes the stalactites and stalagmites around the cave mouth that seem to form the teeth of a huge mouth, and the fact that there seems to have been some seismic activity in the cave recently. He also notes some odd circular red marble rings in the floor. There are no signs of any bodies.

Several tunnels lead off from the cave, from one of which there is something of a breeze blowing. Vambery finds some wooden beads in a shallow depression which he correctly identifies as Muslim prayer beads while Crosse uncovers a battered and bloodstained copy of the Koran, which he gives to Vambery. The Hungarian smells a strong odour of fresh blood but cannot find its source.

One of the tunnels leading off to the south east is investigated - only to find it ends at a sharp 18 metre drop to a narrower passage below, from which the breeze is coming. Vambery hears footsteps coming from the main cave behind them, but when our stalwarts retrace their steps they find nobody.

Baffled, the explorers head down a second tunnel which leads upwards into another cave. Here Stoker and Crosse find a sinkhole which they establish drops 25 metres to water below. Crosse drops a rock down into the water to calculate the depth of the drop accurately. Vambery and Forbes are bringing up the rear, but are intent on the others, and do not hear the creatures sneaking up behind them.

With swift steps, the undead are upon them...

Next: The Attack of the Damned!

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Survival horror in the Star Wars universe

Episode I faces off against Episode VII?
Due to work commitments I've not been able to get any regular gaming done over the last couple of months. It is the penalty of trying to build your own business empire that the usual nine to five work metrics go straight out of the window, and most of your creative energy ends up being poured into work. At that point, you tend to want to become the beneficiary of the creative energies of others when it comes to gaming.

I've been getting my roleplaying when and where I can, usually parachuting in as and when the rare opportunity presents itself. I've consequently ended up playing a bit of D6 Star Wars recently. But it's been a funny old game, and not something you'd expect from Star Wars; then again, you makes of it what you will. And that's not to say that it's not been fun, because it has.

Survival horror? In Star Wars?

Why survival horror? In this case it seems the characters have all stumbled onto an Imperial black research project in the Astaroth system. It is two years since the Rebel Alliance destroyed the Death Star and the rebels are now on the run from the Empire. The bulk of the plot has been driven by an urgent need to stay alive and escape from a perilous situation.

I'm playing Gendar, a cyborg pirate who was working under the now false assumption that the rest of his crew, and their pirate vessel the Amber Scar, had been captured (more of that in a future post). Gendar was making a run for it, to Tatooine, when his ship collided with an asteroid field that was not meant to be there.

In this case it was the remains of an Imperial research facility in orbit around the planet Astaroth. It had just recently been destroyed by, as someone senior tried to cover their tracks. Gendar and some other random arrivals, including a Force sensitive Ithklur called KwiKwae, a Mandalorean mercenary called Dell Nova and a fugitive Imperial librarian from Coruscant called Wilhelmina, had to explore the ruined base in an effort to locate transport, supplies and oxygen without becoming totally irradiated. In the process we picked up a survivor, an Imperial scientist called Klarin Estovar, and discovered that the facility was infested with nanites that were able to operate as semi-intelligent swarms in zero-G and homed in on power sources.

I've not been able to play on a regular basis, but suffice to say, the plot has moved on, with an Imperial shuttle being used to transport the group to the planet's surface, where they have located a crashed Old Republic cruiser, itself also infested with nanites.

The Poseidon spaaace!

The game has taken a turn to classic survival horror, with the characters searching the ship level by level, hunted by various nanotech creations, including the animated bodies of dead crew, risen from cryogenic pods. In terms of feel, it is a mash up between The Poseidon Adventure and Aliens.
Estovar with her little nanite buddies

We've now discovered this ship has been down here on Astaroth for over 60 years, from before the time of the Clone Wars. Estovar is the progenitor of some kind of forbidden technology project that she has been working on with another scientist, Doctor Severin (now dead in a fight that I missed).

Estovar betrayed the group and was killed in a fight with the characters - actually knifed in the guts by Gendar. I say killed - she was saved by the damned ethical Ithklur and the timely application of bacta tanks (and is now in a coma). Plus apparently Estovar may know something about Dell Nova's missing wife. Heck, Gendar just wants to get out of here alive. It's survival horror right? Coming out in one piece is the primary objective.

Next up: escaping from the ruined ship before its reactors went critical, with a Jedi, yes a Jedi hermit, determined to keep us from getting off the planet because she was afraid we were infected with nanites. She has been on Astaroth since the cruiser belly-landed here, working to stop Estovar from exporting her evil creations to the rest of the galaxy.

Luckily Helena Volt, the said Jedi, has been persuaded - with some difficulty - that the group is actually trustworthy enough to be allowed off-planet. This was negotiated because Volt wanted off Astaroth and we had a shuttle. She can't fly.

Things have moved on a little since the departure from Astaroth, and it remains to be seen whether the survival horror nature of the game will change, now we're away. We shall have to see. It's been fun so far. Finally, here's a bit of Cthuloid survival antics courtesy of The Force Awakens:

Friday, 17 November 2017

Book of the Month: London Falling by Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell was not a name I was familiar with before London Falling. Yet he is quite an established writer in the science fiction arena, working across a range of media, including comics and television.

London Falling is the first of a series of novels about a team of London police officers who have been granted an insight into the supernatural world around them and a wider occult conspiracy that wraps the capital in its folds.

Cornell is already well-known in the Doctor Who fraternity. I've never been a huge Doctor Who fan, other than during the Tom Baker era. Once Baker handed the baton on to Peter Davison I lost interest, as I felt Davison was a cad and a fool (an impression reinforced somewhat having met him in the flesh). Cornell wrote an early Doctor Who novel and the screen plays for a number of Doctor Who episodes as well as episodes of the BBC's Robin Hood series which aired in 2006-2007. Heck, he's even written for DC Comics and Marvel. His experience of writing screen plays for UK medical dramas has stood him in good stead for this exercise.

Cornell is a pretty prolific writer then, but he's got a good grasp of the dark underbelly of British criminal society (there's plenty of true crime on British TV and in the newspapers to draw from) and his portrayal of the politics and procedures that beset the Metropolitan Police comes across as extremely authentic.

In London Falling four police officers with very different personal backgrounds become involved in a terrifying urban fantasy as part of an undercover operation to capture a notorious London underworld figure. Two of them are actually working as undercover officers within the organisation in question, while another is coordinating the whole thing (Operation Goodfellow, if I remember correctly). When things all go horribly wrong, they end up as part of a spin off operation, Operation Toto, which starts looking into the more unexplained aspects of the case.

It is tough to go into more detail about the plot without spoiling it, but from the first chapter you are caught up in a gritty and fast-moving story that goes on to encompass ghosts, demons, witches, familiars, human sacrifice and magic. And Premiership football! And beer, lots of beer.

Those who have read Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere will like London Falling, although I would say it is a little darker and shocking than Neverwhere, straying into the realm of horror more than once. Indeed, it feels a little more like Alan Moore's From Hell at times. If I was pinned down, I'd say it is almost as if Gaiman and Moore collaborated on something.

But this is also a book about London - the capital is the backdrop for a quest that takes the team into the depths of urbanomancy, the magic of places and of people (hence the echoes of From Hell). Players of Unknown Armies will be familiar with some of this, and I was regularly reminded of UA throughout the book.

I would heartily recommend the audio book if you can lay hands on it, as the narration by Damian Lynch is just fantastic. He gets the accents precisely right and really makes the characters jump off the page. It makes such a difference when a narrator is retained who can carry off different character accents.

London Falling is also the first in a series of novels collected under the moniker of the Shadow Police, and is followed by The Severed Streets, which came out in 2014. I will it.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Phoenix Dawn Command - first thoughts

I had the opportunity last night to play in my first game of Phoenix Dawn Command, an interesting exercise accompanied by fantastic cake from my friend Kelvin, who also ran the game. It was accompanied by the usual gigantic mugs of team from host Ash.

PDC, as I shall refer to it, as a new game from Keith Baker, most widely known as the creator of the Eberron campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons, which I believe emerged in about 2003 as the first campaign setting to be published after the launch of the 3rd edition of the game.

PDC is one of what I believe will be the next generation of RPGs, combining aspects of traditional pen and paper RPGs, with elements of successful card games like Magic the Gathering and board games. It seems to me as if the current boom in board gaming is bringing more people into the RPG hobby, at least a recent article in the New Yorker argues thus. And the outcome is likely to be more games like PDC.

This is no bad thing. PDC recognises that we have less time and shorter attention spans than we used to. It is competing against other forms of gaming entertainment. Emulation, therefore, is one ingredient of possible success.

The game's setting is very redolent of Exalted, in that the players are epic heroes who have returned at a time of need, when a crumbling empire faces crisis. They are possessed of superhuman powers and, more importantly, the ability to reincarnate. Each character, like in the 1980s RPG Paranoia, can reincarnate six times before they move on to a new arc in their existence. There is something of Buddhism in all this. Ultimately, you are out to save the world, but can die/sacrifice yourself with less punitive consequences than, say, in D&D.

Each character  - I think they are called Phoenixes - reincarnates the next day if slain, and they come back more powerful than ever. Rather than levelling up through experience to improve the abilities of your character, you need to die for this to happen. In addition, and more originally, the manner of your death can help to shape the abilities you return with.

The game relies on hands of cards you draw from your own personal deck. A character is partly defined by this, and it is a good way of moderating and expanding the power of PCs. Having played Faith already, I can appreciate this mechanic, and am considering something similar for my own home brew Viscounts & Vagabonds game, on which I plan to do more work over Christmas when things get a bit quieter.

PDC brings with it some interesting elements - specifying particular features/aspects of a combat in advance allows characters to then utilise these to gain an additional advantage, which I like, and may incorporate into the swashbuckling aspects of V&V. There are no combat grids here either, rather a list of things that define the battle - a water barrel for example - and it is up to the players to find a way to use these to gain bonuses. Once used, that particular feature cannot be re-employed in the battle..

There is no character sheet either, again an interesting design innovation that Faith also explores. Instead, players use a number of cards sitting in front of them, plus some counters. It does have me wondering whether the character sheet has had its day. Again, something else to add to the mix for V&V!

Do I have any criticisms of PDC? Overall I think it is a solid game and enjoyed playing it. The setting, perhaps, is almost too redolent of Exalted to be called completely original, and indeed you could easily transpose PDC rules into the Exalted setting. There is little to separate the Solars and the Phoenixes.

The emphasis of seeking an heroic death has one flaw, which is that once a character is killed, it will take until the following dawn for them to return. In the meantime, they can possess another character as a sort of advisory spirit, providing them with a limited amount of aid, and allowing the player to continue to participate, rather than go off to make the next batch of tea. BUT, if your scenario is written to be completed in a single day, then that player is left with a reduced role for that session regardless. It is probably less bitter than seeing your D&D character of five years' play die, but still, if you can only advance through death, it is a factor that needs to be considered, and is probably best addressed in scenario and encounter design.

Finally, there is the mental jump players need to make from thinking as normal player characters, to being true heroes. This is similar to a group moving from playing D&D to something more meaty like King Arthur Pendragon. PDC is about the creation of heroic legends, not a glorified fantasy Delta Force. Players have an instinct for self-preservation which, in my case, has been ingrained by over 30 years of playing RPGs. It is difficult to shake this instinct and GMs with more seasoned groups will need to be aware of this and coach their players towards these roleplaying goals.

Overall, I liked PDC and would play it again. There is a bit of a learning curve to grapple with, even for experienced gamers, but this is less to do with the complexity of the game than in its revolutionary aspects. I myself am grateful for the steer it has given me in my own thinking about my homebrew RPG.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Subterfuge reminds me of happy days playing Risk

Subterfuge is a multi-player game marketed as an exercise in strategy and diplomacy that is available as an app on, I believe, both the iOS and Android. The game feels a bit like a mash up between Mission Red Planet and Diplomacy, set on an ocean floor populated by a steampunk civilization reminiscent of that in BioShock.

Players control bases on the sea floor, and mine for the mineral Neptunium. Victory, it seems, goes to the player who is first to achieve a pre-set Neptunium score. Submarines carry drillers, the grunts of this universe, between factories and bases. They do all the digging and the fighting.

Who's Queen?

Specialists bring crunch to the game.
A queen rules over each faction and she is responsible for recruiting and promoting specialists. These are experts similar to those in Mission Red Planet. Their skills bring extra crunch to the game; they include smugglers, pirates, thieves and admirals. Some of them have scope for promotion, although I'm still getting my head around this. Like in Chess, if you lose your queen, you're out of the game.

Subterfuge is played in real-time. That means that production and the movement of submarines between bases takes place over a period of hours or days. It is designed to be played on mobile devices. Players can therefore dip into it as and when it suits them over a period of 24 hours or so. The game will, however, disqualify players if they are inactive for more than 48 hours.

There is an element of limited intelligence here: each base has a maximum sonar range. You can monitor activity at other players' bases if they are within sonar range, and receive alerts on your phone when new submarines crop up inside your sonar network. I quite like this - the use of a software platform means that you cannot possess godlike intelligence on your foes.

Subterfuge is designed to fit the long strategy game into the schedule of a busy modern lifestyle, and it does this very well. When there is no longer time to get people around a table for a day to play Supremacy or Twilight Imperium, Subterfuge is able to offer a strategy game along similar lines for a much smaller commitment in terms of time. A fast forward dial allows you to order units that will only become available in the future, when you are asleep for example!

I'm still playing in my first game. I had to solve a number of mission problems using the game before I could sign up, but these are really designed to help you to learn the basics before you get involved. In my new game there have been several other major revelations that have jeopardised my ability to win, but I'm treating this largely as a learning exercise.

An example of part of a game in action.

The developers stress using diplomacy as vital to winning, but I've seen very little of this so far. Strangely, many of the players in this first game seem keen to avoid ending the game by mining too much Neptunium too quickly, and my decision to establish a mine early in the game was treated with some shock. I've since lost the mine to another player who has promised not to upgrade production! I've consulted another player and he thinks they are trying to prolong the game.

While there is little danger of me winning, I'm not about to drop out either, as this is a valuable opportunity to test out many of the specialists and other functionality in the game. I've always been of the view that there is fun and entertainment to be derived from hanging onto a losing position just to make the lives of others more challenging, rather than simply walking away from the table. We'll see how I progress with this.

I should also mention that the aesthetics are lovely, from the undersea landscape to the portraits of specialists to the sound effects. Try typing out a message in-game to another player and it sounds like a typewriter!

Subterfuge is free to play once you have achieved Level 1 status. You can then join online games. For a fee of $10 you can upgrade, which will give you other functionality - I'm not precisely sure what yet - but also more importantly it seems you can also then set up and participate in private games with friends, rather than just in public sessions, which somehow seems even more fun.

Friday, 13 October 2017

My first stab at playing in an NFL fantasy league

Ed Dickson, currently the starting TE at Carolina
This year I have been roped into managing a fantasy NFL team in a 12 player league being administered by a friend of my brother. Although we live in England, we have been fans of the old gridiron since Channel 4 first started broadcasting a regular Sunday evening show back in about 1985. American football had fascinated me from an earlier age, however, as living in the Middle East we were able to watch college football on Saudi Aramco's TV channel.

Fast forward to 2017, and I'm stumbling into the first quarter of the season. We are an eclectic mix of managers, including Brits, Australians and Americans. I think there is a Kiwi in there too.

The opening draft was special, taking place at noon on a Saturday, in order to accommodate bedtime in Australia and breakfast in North Carolina. I ran a couple of simulated drafts in advance, but as far as I could see, there was broad consensus in terms of the players chosen. It was obvious on your turn who you should opt for.

It is unlike fantasy cricket - if you play fantasy cricket during the English county cricket season - in fantasy cricket, once you have a player on your roster, he's yours until you choose to trade him or drop him. In the Daily Telegraph's fantasy cricket league, more than one player can benefit from the same cricketer's points during a week. Also, the English cricket season is a sprawling, fragmented affair, making it hard to keep track of who is playing when unless you are extremely dedicated.

My first draft left me with what I thought was a fairly strong team, although I did end up with three quarterbacks, namely Cam Newton, Trevor Siemian and Tyrod Taylor. All three are starting quarterbacks, giving them a good prospect of scoring each week. I note also that quarterbacks are the biggest consistent points earners, so mess this up, and you can mess up your season.

My problem is deciding which one to go with. While I've got a fairly solid corps of running backs, including Devonta Freeman and Jordan Howard, I'm rotating my QBs as if they were pitchers in baseball. Newton has been regularly talked down since the season started, following on from a shoulder injury, but has become a decent performer. I suspect that Carolina is deliberately making him seem more badly injured than he really is, to out fake the other teams - will he play, won't he? You can imagine the frustration.

As I write this Newton has just netted me 22.1 points following the Panthers' loss to the Eagles. But deciding from week to week is difficult, as inevitably one of the QBs you have benched plays a blinder. That's just how it is. But is it maddening at times, when you see a possible victory slip through your fingers.

I'm still struggling a little against my competitors: going into this weekend I'm 2-3, but hoping to take myself to .500 if I can. It is another week where some NFL teams have a bye week, as was last week, which means some of my personnel are not playing. You really need to fill all your player slots for each weekend, otherwise you will likely lose. Even failing to start a kicker can cost you a game. I've been finding that my games are coming down to + / - 15 points or less, so I am well aware that you need to do all you can to make sure you have a healthy squad with a good chance of making some points.

Thus far I've had some surprises, and some canny moves. Picking up Carolina TE Ed Dickson off waivers after Greg Olsen was injured for the season was one: my fellow coaches had not picked up on the fact that Carolina would likely be forced to start him against New England in Week 4. I grabbed him and since then he has netted 7.2 vs New England, an awesome 19.2 against Detroit, and 4.9 against Philadelphia this week. Still, that's not bad for someone who was lazing around on waivers.

I'll probably report back on my progress later on in the season when I have more to ruminate on.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Why I won't be buying the new Conan RPG

A new Conan RPG is born!
The new Conan role playing game is now out from Modiphius, and I'm sure it is very nice too. A great deal of effort has been spent on coming up with something that sports fantastic artwork, and I'm sure it plays well. But I won't be buying it. As a Robert E. Howard fan, you might wonder why I'm not going to shell out for it.

Some years ago Mongoose published a d20 version of Conan, and I loaded up on those books. They were a mixed bag, but the system was easy to introduce to people already playing Dungeons & Dragons, as it used very similar rules. I can't say the interior art was very good, but I wasn't really buying it for that.

I think I've reached a point in my game purchasing habits where there has to be a very good reason to buy something. I have not bought the new edition of Call of Cthulhu yet, largely because I think 6th edition CoC does a good job, and there are also other rules systems (e.g. Trail of Cthulhu) which can do as good, if not a better job, when exploring the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos.

A new Conan game means learning a new system before umpiring it. I have been playing RPGs now since 1984, and have absorbed an awful lot of different rules, most recently the Cypher system from Monte Cook Games. I am, however, reaching the point that I'd rather convert a setting to a rules set I know than buy a new game and a new rules package purely because a publisher has acquired a license.

I hear the guys at Happy Jack's are playing in a Star Wars campaign using Traveller, and good on them. If you know how to play Traveller, why bother buying the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games - just use an existing science fiction system and adapt it. There is SO much information available on the Star Wars universe online, you really don't need to buy new source books. I was flicking through the old Rebellion era campaign guide from West End Games a few weeks ago, and realised the vast bulk of the information in there is available online, and not only that, but much, much more. Indeed, half the fun of the Star Wars universe now is researching the obscure references, IMHO!

Back to Conan. After you have read the stories, and maybe some of the comics, you probably have a good grasp of the canon. Everything else can be filled in from either further online research, painting in the gaps yourself, or doing what Howard himself did, which is plundering real world history.

Yes, let's talk about Robert E. Howard

Conan the Valorous - meh!
I've had something of a revelation about Howard in the last few years. When I was a teen, I loved his stories, and read them voraciously, as well as all the knock offs by the likes of L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Jordan, Andrew J. Offut et al. I think I finally ran out of steam in the late 1980s with Conan the Valorous, when I realised that the general quality of the writing and story telling was going into decline.

Howard plundered from the pages of ancient history unashamedly. He was obviously well-read in history, and also produced a lot of historical novels. Many of his medieval stories have been 'converted' into Conan stories - Hawks Over Shem anyone? Oh yes. Based on historical fact. I've read up on it.

When I was 17 I was studying ancient history at school, and part of the program was to read and virtually memorise the entirety of Herodotus' Histories. Imagine my surprise when names and places from the pages of Conan jumped out at me. Yes, the Cimmerians were a real tribe who indulged in many of the same activities as Howard's Cimmerians, as were the Picts, the Kushites, and many more. What this taught me is that if you are happy freely porting historical material into Hyboria, you're on the right track.

Go beyond this, however, and the exotic locales Howard dreamed up in Texas begin to ring a little hollow once you have actually crossed the Sahara desert, walked the foot hills of the Himalayas (and almost died of altitude sickness) or jostled your way through the bazaars of Lahore or Malacca. Some of his visions are accurate, possibly poached from the pages of travel books, others, not quite so. That's not to say he should have been shooting for historical or geographical accuracy when writing his stories, but reading him now in my forties I sometimes wish he had had the opportunity to travel more widely himself, like Hemingway or Twain.

Finally, I'm reading now the complete stories of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle was a doctor and died at the age of 71. He wrote his first Holmes story, as far as I can tell, in 1887 (A Study in Scarlet). At that point he was still in his late twenties. But he was a trained doctor who had also spent time at school in Austria. As he progressed, his writing, including his Holmes tales, reflected his wider experience of people and places. Howard, on the other hand, seems to have kept himself to Texas, and wrote most of his output over seven years, between the ages of 23 and 30. Coming to his stories again, in later life, they somehow do not have the depth of scene and character that once they exhibited. Conan Doyle, on the other hand, does.

Yes, but where are you going with all this?

There are many interpretations of Hyborian geography.
This takes us back to running games in Howard's world. This is not, I think, a 'canon' world. Even the original maps were dreamed up by fans, not by Howard himself. He never imagined it as a cohesive world to the degree that Tolkien imagined Middle-earth. Yes, he made it up as he went along, and so, I would argue, should GMs. I was looking through the very substantial source book that Mongoose published for their iteration of Conan role playing on the mystic realm of Stygia. It is all very nice, and there are some useful tidbits in there, but this is not the Stygia of my imagination, perhaps not that of Howard's either. Mongoose did a good job of compiling a large amount of information on Stygia from a broad range of sources, including the somewhat suspect Marvel comics of the 1970s, but it comes across as something of a mish-mash, and not how I would want to present Stygia to players.

What I'm getting at is this - you don't really need to buy Conan source books or Conan role playing games. Take the Hyborian world at a high level - the kingdoms, the cultures, the peoples, the gods, and then make it your own. Sometimes people who play RPGs get a little too obsessive about settings. We've seen this in a recent Forgotten Realms versus Greyhawk debate on Facebook. Forgotten Realms is praised for its vast and detailed canon, which is great if you like vast canon, but frankly I don't. Greyhawk was great when it was just one boxed set. It had maps, high level details on kingdoms, religions, armies, encounter tables, and suchlike, but as a GM I had more fun dropping adventures into less detailed corners of Greyhawk or setting my own there - basically, designing the parameters myself. Greyhawk had room for the writer, just as Howard's world had room for the writers that followed in his wake.

I'm finding this difficulty with the depth and detail of Glorantha at the moment - you really can get lost in that world, particularly in areas like Dragon Pass or Pavis which have been heavily detailed over the years. Luckily, there are still parts of Glorantha that seem to have just had the bare bones sketched out, and that is how it should be!

My take on Conan then: I'm more than happy to play a character in someone's campaign, but I won't be spending a cent on the new game myself. There are just so many rich resources available online, and so many excellent rules systems in print already. I'm not a Robert E. Howard completist. I will still enjoy his stories and watch Arnie prance around on television once in a while, and all that will be enough to spark my imagination. I think that, personally, I've just reached a point where a new line of Conan RPG books fails to excite me. Sorry Modiphius.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Sherlock Holmes - action hero?

Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr as Watson and Holmes
Sherlock Holmes, as presented to the world by director Guy Ritchie in 2009, is an eminently watchable reinterpretation of the great Victorian detective. It is described as a "neo-noir, period mystery action film", which rather hits the nail on the head. The whole exercise is a vehicle for Robert Downey Jr's invention of Holmes as an eccentric, driven action hero. There is something of the Tony Stark in Downey Jr's Holmes, but you do need someone with this level of on-screen personality to carry it through, and he surely does.

This is not 'classic' Holmes; it is not Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett, by any means, but sometimes it is good to get out from under those immense shadows, as Benedict Cumberbatch has done with the recent BBC series. I'm working my way through the original stories, and to be honest, the Guy Ritchie interpretation of Holmes seems just as viable as others. Holmes was an eccentric, difficult to live with, occasionally inspired by flights of genius. That is all here in Ritchie's film.

But the backdrop against which the film's events take place is gorgeous, thanks to a whopping special effects budget. As an Englishman with a love of London, including its grittier side, Ritchie is able to bring the 1880s to life on screen, in a panoramic spectacular (e.g. the scenes on Tower Bridge at the end). As a native Londoner he avoids stereotypes, and includes accents and cultures which would have existed in Victorian London. The poverty and the bad teeth, the Irish navvies, hell, even a French dock worker, all are on display. It makes for a much more gritty and European portrayal.

At the time of filming in 2008-09, Ritchie, Downey Jr and co-star Jude Law (playing Doctor John Watson) were frequent fixtures on London's high end night life scene, happy to spend time partying with each other in the West End after the cameras stopped rolling, and that chemistry comes through in the camaraderie between the actors.

But what also makes the film so strong, from the perspective of a Call of Cthulhu gamer, perhaps, is Mark Strong's villainous Lord Henry Blackwood. Strong is one of the treasures of British cinema at the moment, and underused in the first Kingsman film, if you ask me, but in Sherlock Holmes he does a superb job as a corrupt aristocrat and occultist out to take over the Empire. Watch the first 10 minutes of this film and tell me if it isn't something straight out of a game of Call of Cthulhu? Strong's Blackwood could be a shoe-in for a CoC cult leader.

The whole exercise has a tense undercurrent verging on horror and nineteenth century mysticism that should make it compulsory viewing for any Keepers who are considering running some Gaslight adventures. Combine that with the pulp action elements and it feels very much like a typical game I might umpire.

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.