Dec 042013
 

Balance is a tricky thing in RPGs. Some would even argue that it is not relevant and that player agency and good games mastering should be all that is required. I disagree with such sentiments, and think when it comes to character generation, the process should allow for everyone to begin on a level playing field. This is sorely tested when magic is introduced into pretty much any system. Even the simplest of systems can sometimes struggle, but I think Savage Worlds is one of the few that does it well.

One of the classics has a differing approach, with magic being pretty under-powered for starting characters, but growing to epic proportions later, allowing them to outclass their sword wielding brethren as they raise through the levels. In Orbis there are various schools of magic – some high, some low – and they all have differing power levels. For the first time ever I have generated a character with some magic ability, but haven’t concentrated on it. For the people who haven’t been keeping up, my character is a duelist who has access to the power of Geomancy which he mainly uses to give himself advantage in combat.

Geomancy is the power to change the world around you by casting runes. These changes can be small and subtle, such as cleaning the clothes you’re wearing or honing the edge of a blade, or large and obvious, like removing the pull of Uma’s gravity from large objects. In terms most gamers should understand, it is the closest magic system to the traditional way of magic or sorcery from D&D, with a limit on how many “spells” you can learn, and how many you can cast a day, with more powerful runes only available when you have enough points/ranks in the skill. Like D&D magic then, it looks like you start small and could become massively powerful. The amount of time you would need to devote to the art is a huge restriction though.

I have played magic users that within a few months of play could call down fire from the heavens. In Orbis however, there is no way that an adventuring character could ever have the time or resources to spend on learning and mastering such powerful runes. In this way it has an inbuilt balance that is kept under control by the players. Could I learn the truly powerful runes that could shake the very foundations of Uma? Of course I could, but it would be the very definition of a boring role playing experience, and would still take far too long.

There are of course other options to you though. Heart’s Fire is an elemental power that has almost limitless destructive potential. You’d be a bloody fool to unleash it all though, as every use of the Fire carries with it a risk of mutation. This risk rises with continued use and increases in line with how powerful a Fire you wish to wield. Again, self limiting by the player’s choices, and most adventurers only pull out the big guns when their lives depend on it, knowing full well that even if they survive they might never be the same again.

Earth Power is strange one. It is almost limitless from a very early stage, with users able to do almost anything they could imagine! Sounds great so far, but it only affects living things. And the living thing needs to be in contact with Uma. As does the person casting it. So, limited again, but so far I have seen characters with this power possess the will of their enemies or uproot great trees. To keep it under control somewhat, the character has a limited number of “points” that they use to activate their powers. The more powerful the magic, the more points it costs. Come the following dawn though, all points return without even needing the traditional hour or what-have-you of meditation that is usually required for such things.

For me, the one that looks the most broken though, is Daemonology. Basically the ability to reach through the fabric of reality and bring forth creatures whose will you bent to your own with powers almost without limit. Unlike the other magics, the Daemonologist is massively powerful right from the off. The only real limit is that each creature they bring through drains points from their Willpower attribute. Although this can go up, most people who create a Daemonologist have it as high as it’s going to go pretty early on, and soon hit the point where even attempting to bring anything else through is just another way to commit suicide.

In our current game we have one such character who has begun play with a Daemon bound weapon. Because of this weapon, Brand is now the best fighter in the game, easily surpassing professional warriors who have dedicated a boat load of points and abilities in learning how to effectively swing a sword. When I first realised this, I was stunned as I thought that this threw the balance out completely. Not only was he the most effective fighter, but he could still use Daemonology to even better effect! The more I thought about it though, the more I realised that the balance was just a bit backwards.

Other magic users get better – with limits – as time progresses and advancement points are acquired, but the Daemonologist hits their upper point pretty damned quickly and need to look to other areas to improve themselves. Unlike other magic users, they are also unable to use their powers responsively. If I was faced with a superior enemy, I could cast a rune to knock them from their feet and then impale them as they laid helpless. A Daemonologist would require hours – if not days – to bring a creature through to help them in a fight. Add to this the cultural problems with Daemons that exist throughout Uma, and you could end with a character with immense power that isn’t allowed into entire countries.

The lower magics that exist act more like special skills than world altering powers, so don’t need the time spent discussing them. The High magics mentioned above though, are amazing. Each has been created in a way that makes sense within the physics of the world, even of they can sometimes warp said physics. They exist in the cultures of Uma differently, and how you feel about any of them could vary depending on which city you were born in. And, importantly, none of them break the game. You could try, but you would fail, and end up having a fairly rubbish time while you did so. They add so much to the game world, and fight perfectly well into the system without needing a huge amount of extra rules just for them, that you’d be foolish to create a character without at least taking a look at what’s available to you.

In other news, it looks like Kickstarter has sorted out the money going to the lads who created this amazing game, and the digital copies should be going out by the end of the week. If you backed this campaign, I’d love to know what you think about the game when it arrives, so please let me by dropping me a comment below.

Nov 072013
 

Combat is on my mind of late, and it’s mainly down to what I was up to on Tuesday. Our first week of playing Orbis Terrarum started a bit late as we were waiting on a couple of chaps who weren’t part of the group when we generated characters, so we dropped into the second game with a fight just about to happen. I will be doing part two of my PC diary soon, to give you a blow by blow account of my heroic exploits. For now though, lets just take a look at how the system works, and what it does well, and what it might not do quite so well.

To begin with we have initiative; each person rolls a D10 and adds their reaction modifier to the roll, to give them their place in the initiative order. The reaction modifier is calculated during char gen, and is usually a low number, probably no more than 3-4, so most of this comes down to random chance. What doesn’t is the situation when combat starts, and what the metier of the encounter is. We discussed metier briefly during the last part of the review, but it applies to more than just people, and can have a distinct bearing on the game play throughout. Since this was an ambush, it meant that most people would be taken by surprise – I never did find out what the rest of the combat’s metier was, but ambush was bad enough – unless they were used to being in combat situations.

This meant that the warriors and fighters amongst the party don’t get the surprised modifier of minus ten, and can respond regularly. Everyone else reduces their initiative by ten points, so unless they did pretty well, won’t get an action this first turn. After the first turn, they lose the surprise modifier, and if they’re back into positive numbers, get an action. Once that’s sorted, we move onto the actual fighting. Combat is a back and forth in Orbis, but still manages to maintain a simplicity of dice rolling that I appreciate. You choose the attack you wish to make and roll against the relevant skill. Different attacks are based on different attributes, and have a base in either brawl, melee, or ranged. You then specialise in a weapon, getting ranks in it, and increasing it further with advancement points.

Getting below your score with a D100 roll means you will have hit, but your opponent will certainly be trying to stop you. They have several options in how they do this, but they all work in pretty much the same way. If they have a weapon that allows it, they may attempt to parry. Usually the parry score for a weapon is half of its attack value, but can be modified based on size and after market modifications. A shield is designed to block blows though, so your score in it is equal to your parry, and your attack is halved. The other option is to dodge out of the way of the blow, which means just using your dodge skill level instead of your parry. Whichever skill you use, you apply the level in it as a negative modifier against your opponent’s attack score.

This might seem a bit complicated, but once the combat begins, it gets really easy, with a one roll being made to determine the hit, and a number against it as a modifier. If you do manage to get through your opponents defenses, you need to know where you’ve hit, and how hard. The ‘tens’ result of the attack roll gives you your level of success, and the ‘ones’ your location. The level of success is used as a modifier added to how much damage you do, and can be increased depending on how you fight. Fighting defensively for instance means you get a bonus to your passive defensive skills, but will do less damage – rolling a smaller die, and doing less per level of success – whilst fighting aggressively grants you a bonus to attack, and the chance to do more damage, but severely limits your ability to avoid being hit on the counter attack.

When all that’s done, you just roll the necessary die for damage, adding the level of success plus strength based modifiers, and apply it to your opponent. Hitting in various locations doesn’t make too much difference unless they’re armoured in certain places, but not others, or if you’ve succeeded in a critical hit. If they are wearing armour, then it all comes down to armour type versus attack type. Slashing a knife across the chest of someone wearing plate armour for instance, won’t really do much, but stabbing a rapier through someone’s mail might just hit home and cause them all kinds of problems.

So there we have the combat system in a nutshell, we’d better get to grips with the intricacies. The aim of the combat system is to make it dangerous but heroic. If you’re no match for your opponent, you will either flee, die, or be spared, but will certainly still offer a challenge to them. If you’re the one with a higher skill one opponent will be little challenge while still posing a threat, but even one more enemy could up the threat rate considerably. When fighting someone of comparable skill though, things get a bit different.

I ended up fighting two different opponents, one of whom was of lower level with poor equipment, the second was a much more equal match with a decent weapon and shield. Dispatching the first wasn’t much of an issue, although he did manage to survive one more round than I expected whilst bleeding heavily from the jugular, the second was more of an issue. The reason it’s a challenge to fight multiple opponents, is that you suffer penalties for using your passive defenses more than once a turn. Luckily I had a little bit of magic up my sleeve so I managed a distraction to stop myself from getting attacked twice in a round, but then the combat got a bit sluggish for me.

Because my opponent – Marco – had a shield and had seen me dispatch his comrade earlier, he decided to fight defensively. This meant that even if I attacked aggressively I would have next to no chance of hitting him. He was in the same boat too, which meant that for two rounds, nothing happened. On the second, I didn’t even attempt an attack as I had done the maths, and realised how risky it would be. You see, for each rank you have in an attack skill, you automatically gain a one percent chance of hitting your opponent. For me this meant three percent. What stopped me making the roll though was the chance of critical failure.

Whenever you make a skill check in Orbis, a double on the roll indicates a critical. If you pass, it’s a critical pass, and if fail, vice versa. So I ended up with a three in one hundred chance of hitting, but a 9 in 100 chance of critically failing. The GM said this was intentional as with two equal opponents, the fight should be a stalemate until a mistake is made or forced. For me though it just meant that I had nothing to do while everyone else was kicking ass. I was tempted to resort to magic again – don’t worry, I’ll get into that in a different review – but luckily one of my compatriots turned up looking like the wild eyed Celt he is, and Marco promptly saw his options were limited and surrendered.

That was the only thing that didn’t go very well based on my experience, but it was situational, and in terms of the game world and the system made perfect sense. To be honest, I had to struggle somewhat to find something negative to say about the combat system. Initiative was worked out quickly, and once everyone had got their heads around the way attack and defenses were calculated, the combat flew through several rounds over several small melees. Other people who were playing less combat efficient characters were able to bring their own abilities into play without any problems, making a big difference to how the encounter played out.

I think everyone managed to bring their personal metier into play at least once too, allowing for the character’s personality traits and background to shape the way the action played out. As well as this having an in game effect, it also made it easier for the players to bring these factors in on a role playing level too, something that doesn’t happen often in combat. The fact that there’s no separate dice rolls required to defend or determine hit location means combat flows quickly and is intuitive, with everyone picking up the essentials in just one round.

Over all, I had a damned fine time and managed to avoid getting hurt at all, even against an opponent with military training. It all felt heroic, as if we were great people doing great deeds against an evil aggressor, but also dangerous. One of my fellow players, who had earlier ripped the ground out from under two people with Earth Power, was unable to stop a teenager with a knife from slashing his chest open.

the next part of this review will either be looking at the general themes of the game and the setting, or if we get enough of it, some thoughts on the various types of magic that are found throughout Uma. Until then, why don’t you head over and check out their Kickstarter. At time of writing they were over half way to hitting their first stretch goal.

Oct 242013
 

As some of the more astute amongst you may have realised, I haven’t been as active lately as I would like to be, with regard to engaging with people on their own blogs, pimping this one, or writing more than one article a week. There are several reasons for that, some good and some bad, and one that I hope to be able to share with you soon, however doing so prematurely would be a bit silly. This also means that I haven’t had much time to carry on with my own RPG project, Rise of the Automata. I am not giving up on any of these projects, but somethings just need to take priority at the moment.

I do however always make sure I have the time to role play at my local gaming society once a week – I am currently the President, so not turning up would be weird – and today I would like to talk about what I’m currently playing. The game is called Orbis Terrarum – or Orbis for short – and it has been a labour of love for two friends of mine far at least as long as I have known them. This will be the third time I have been lucky enough to play in one of their campaigns, and this time is especially fortuitous as the game is damned near completed, and they will be hopefully launching a Kickstarter project soon to create a hard copy of the game. The link above is to their Facebook page, and if any of the following seems interesting to you, make sure you like the page as they will be announcing all updates on their. And trust me, you’re going to want to keep an eye out for this game, as it is spectacular. Anyway, on with the review.

There are a few things about character generation in Orbis that stand out, and make you realise just how well thought out the game this. Rather than cherry pick the cool bits though, I’m going to go through the whole process for you. I do have a copy of the character generation rules, but since they are a beta copy, I am not at liberty to share them just yet.

To start with, the Orbis Master (OM) asks you to think about a few things that might define the character you want to play. This known as the metier, and is a three word description of the character summing up their most obvious personality trait, their country of birth, and the word that best describes their profession. I went for an Impetuous Raphelian Duelist. The country of your birth – or at least where you grew up – is very important in this gritty realistic fantasy game, as you will only be playing as humans. Their are beings from another plane, but they are not playable characters, and the writers have eschewed the Tolkienistic elves and dwarves that are common in other fantasy settings.

To set things off after this, with nothing more than a basic concept in mind, you roll a D20 to randomly determine the state of your life as a young person. I was pretty damned lucky in that I ended up coming from a wealthy family. Not only did this mean a bit of extra starting cash to buy gear with, but it was also a perfect fit for the back story I had in mind. Even if I had rolled something different though, I would have just made some last minute changes and moved on. A second D20 roll gives you something unusual about yourself. I have seen some pretty bad ones in my past experience of playing this game, but once again luck was on my side, and all I ended up with was being a bloody big fella. It means I’ll have a hard time sneaking around, but the word “Large” is now a permanent extra part of my metier that also gives me a few extra points of wound capacity. There is one more roll like this to make, but that comes right at the end, and for now we’re looking at what it means to be from certain places on the world of Uma.

Where you are from determines your starting options for skills, some cultural advantages, but first, the amount of dice you will roll to generate your primary attributes, of which they are seven. The player rolls a number of D20 for each attribute based on their culture, from 3-6 D20, taking the three results they prefer and adding them together, discarding the rest. This gives a pretty good balance with the stronger, hardier cultures more likely to survive their environments, and the more learned cultures more likely to thrive in a social and intellectual melting pot. These numbers are used to work out certain derived attributes, but this just comes down to maths, and although well worked out, is nothing that unusual for experienced gamers.

At this point, due to the random nature of the dice rolls, it is possible that you have a set of attributes that make your original character concept unworkable. If this is because all of your physical/mental attributes are astonishingly low, you do get a slight advantage in the form of two free talents, but if you’ve just been let down just a little, there are ways to change things later. As a quick example, due to the nature of the games’ setting, males are expected to be more physically able, and so you can instantly raise a physical attribute by five points. Females are much less likely too be pushed into such areas, so instead they can raise a mental attribute by the same amount.

Before people start making claims of sexism against the game, it is set in a cross between a medieval and Renaissance world, and it makes sense that cultural expectations would shape the lives of those who grew up surrounded by them. Plus, there is nothing negative about either bonus, as although combat does break out in this game, it is lethal enough that thinking your way around it, or applying magic to the problem is often favourable.

Once this bit’s done, we get onto skills and talents. Each character gets ten points to spend on cultural skills and talents, and then an additional ten to spend elsewhere. Each culture has a choice of ten skills, but not all of them will be relevant to each character. As an example, I was playing a duelist not a drunken sailor, so I could skip at least three of these cultural skills in favour of things that better suited me. There are also four cultural advantages, and you can buy as many of them as you want. I took two, the first giving me an advantage when dealing with other adventurers, and the second allowing me to raise my Agility attribute by a further ten points to suit my (hopefully high) skill with a sword. Each culture has one attribute that they can raise in this way, and this is a great little touch. As mentioned earlier, you could end up wanting to play a Raphelian swordsman and then roll appallingly for your Agility. Because Raphelians prize dexterity and showmanship though, it is more than likely that you have spent time in your formative years increasing your ability in such things, so get a nice boost.

The other ten points can be spent on any skills or on a few other things if you have the skills you need. Each attribute can be raised an additional ten points by spending one Talent point per attribute. This means once again that you can boost something that you were unlucky with in the early stages. You can also boost your wound capacity if you feel like your character is likely to be in life threatening situations with any kind of regularity. If it wasn’t for that fact that I also took a smattering of magic ability I would have picked up a fair few extra hit points, but there’s only so many points to go around.

Each point you put into a skill using talents gives you a rank. Each rank not only increases the score by five points – the base of each skill is equal to the attribute that makes the most sense – but the more ranks you have in each skill, the less you will need to make skill checks, and the more likely you are to critically succeed in a challenge. On top of this, you also get fifty advancement points – basically experience points – that are added to the skills of your choosing on a one-for-one basis. All this means that you have a whole bunch of control over the character that you want to play, while still having that element of chance that keeps things interesting.

After all that’s done we get onto the final touches such as height and weight, as well as money to spend on equipment. Since my family background was wealthy, I had double starting money, so actually managed to buy both a decent weapon and a bit of armour too, rather than having to choose. On one occasion in the past I ended up getting mugged right at the start of the game, and was left with nothing but some blood stained clothes. Orbis is a harsh game indeed. How did I end up getting mugged you ask? Well that’s down to one last D20 roll that follows on from my past as mentioned above. This is to determine something that has happened in the very recent past, and with my luck so far, I felt certain that a mugging would be the least of my problems. But once again, I was favoured by fortune, and my recent past involved a romantic entanglement of some kind. I never expected that, and will have to work it into my back story somehow.

So there we have it in a rather large nutshell. I did skip over a few details that aren’t worth dwelling on as anyone who has created a character for an RPG will know what the score is. There is one last thing to note though, and for me I’m 50/50 on whether or not I like it. You see, each nation has their own currency – as one would expect – and this means that buying things can get a bit complicated, as not every item is available in every country, and the prices vary too. This means that the equipment list has prices and availability of each item, but not in game effects. This isn’t a big deal for things like a razor or a scabbard which don’t need that much extra information, but when you’re looking at knives, daggers, and dirks, it’d be nice to know what kind of damage each would do compared to cost and weight. I like that the cultures are so well defined, and that the relationships are so well thought out, but it does add some extra time and page turns to what is an otherwise very fluid and intuitive character generation method.

So far then, it’s all fantastic, and I have a character I’m very happy with. I will carry on this review sporadically as and when different situations present themselves. What I’ll be spending more time doing though is writing an in game diary. I have done this before and had a great time doing it. It will motivate me to get more writing done too, which is never a bad thing. My question though is where to put it. I never wanted this blog to be an in game fiction kind of thing, so I thought about reviving my old page to keep things separate. But would people be happier to just come here to read about the continuing exploits of Kantrel di Gregori? Sound off below with any thoughts and if you have any interest in reading my game write ups here.

Sep 302013
 

OK, it might be. There is some tantalising glimpses at some future posts though, so if you’re a fan, then please stay with me for the next five hundred words. First, sorry for a lame ass filler post. A few months back the company I work at started some major overhauls to its staffing, and this has meant that even though I’m on a twelve hour contract, doing six day weeks has been happening more and more. Heck, there are times when I’ve worked ten days straight without a day off. Last week we also had a major hardware and software upgrade while our senior member of staff was on holiday, at the same time as Fresher’s Fayre while I’m the president of our gaming society. All in all, not conducive to spending time in front of a computer.

Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t even been that active on other blogs that I follow. This is for the same reason. I tend to flick through them quickly on my mobile during breaks, or of an evening, but rarely have the time to post well thought replies. Don’t worry, I am checking you all out, you just don’t know about. Anyway, onto less creepy sounding things.

My column at Stuffer Shack should return this week, as things are getting a bit back to normal, and I’m in the mood for trying out something different. I’ve already done a bunch of plot seeds, and a large handful of character ideas for people to use. At the moment I’m thinking about trying my hand at a bestiary of some sort. I will be going through folkloric creatures from old English lore, and adapting them to fit into fantasy games, so check that out from the weekend onward.

On this blog I will be looking at what – if any – winning conditions exist for a player of role playing games, and the people who run them too. I’ts just a little something that’s been on my mind but I’ve had trouble pinning down. Work is proceeding though, so should be something on that soon.

I also have started some work researching a couple of my weapons posts too. The first comes after a conversation with a re-enactor last week about how brawling skills are way more important than you would think when it comes to a melee, and the second is on the humble spear. A question was asked on a forum when I was pimping my document about why the spear was used so often throughout history but us far from popular in RPGs. I think I’ve found a few answers, and some other little factoids too.

So there you have it, a few little ideas to keep you going, and a promise that I will try really hard to do better in future. Still, I’ve been at this for over a year, and this is the first time I’ve not done a weekly post with actual content. Depending on how the next couple of days go, I might have a review post to put up before the end of the week to keep the hordes at bay.

Aug 202013
 
Click through for Cubicle 7 page.

Click through for Cubicle 7 page.

As I’ve mentioned once or twice, this last month has been pretty damned hectic for me, so a few things have sadly fallen by the wayside. I have just about managed to keep regular postings on this page, but almost everything else has been put to one side until I can give the various projects I’ve taken on the time and effort they deserve.

One such thing is my attention towards the rather excellent, and massively anticipated third edition of the Steampunk role playing game Victoriana by those lovely people over at Cubicle 7. For a full disclosure and to explain why I’m annoyed that this one has taken me so long to get round to, I was sent a free copy of this book for review purposes. After hinting pretty damned heavily that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. So sorry everyone for the delay, I know it would have been better for another positive review to be out there before Gencon, but this will have to do.

To make up for it, I’ll be doing what I did for my review of Kuro, breaking it into several bits, each being about a significant proportion of the main rule book. Today then we’ll be starting with the setting and background section, The Encyclopaedia Victoriana.

As a history nerd – seriously, check out how many articles I’ve written about historical weapons – it’s hard to describe just how much fun I had reading this section. They cover things as one would expect for an alternative history book; in broad strokes. But there’s detail in there, and a lot of it is their own, but some of the stuff they’ve put in there had me breaking out in a huge grin. I don’t want to start listing them here (there were loads of them) but they were all brilliant, and impressed me with the level of research that must have been put into this section.

I do have to point out one thing that I wasn’t 100% happy about. I know that their world is very different too ours, and that there is more to the sapient races than just humanity. I think this is a great selling point for the game, and is handled with considerably more style than I think Shadowrun ever managed. Each race – not species – has a particular place within the social landscape. The Eldren sitting at the top, with Ogres usually at the bottom (links seem to go to an older wiki that may not be up to date with the current edition, and are used only for descriptive purposes). I also understand the need to change things a bit, and that there is no reason why they should stick faithfully to something when it serves no purpose. But Napoleon was actually taller than I am, so casting him as a Dwarf was a little bit strange…

The way it’s all tied together makes for a damned entertaining read too. Historical narrative can sometimes be a bit of a pain to read if it it’s written poorly, and this is some very good writing indeed. They break things down by event, and present them as mini case studies done first hand from the point of view of a character within their world. And it such a well realised world too. Page after page for the various countries and nations that exist, and even a few that don’t, at least not in our world.

What surprised me, as I haven’t played previous incarnations of the game due to lack of opportunity, was how important religion is, and how much was written about it. They go to some lengths to make sure that the readers know to differentiate between real world religions and the “fictional”* ones that they’ve created. Although there are similarities, and it’s pretty easy to see where they’ve taken inspiration from each of the three Abrahamic faiths, along with a few others, each is different enough that it doesn’t come across as a lazy pastiche.

So far then – and you may have noticed that I’ve kept actual content to a minimum to avoid spoilers – I’m absolutely loving the book. The layout makes it pleasure to read (I do like books with fully justified margins) and the writing is top notch. This is what I’ve come to expect from Cubicle 7 though. Each and every one of their games has been great to just sit down with and devour while sipping from a mug of hot chocolate.

Next time I’ll be looking at character creation, and as such a few bits of the system too. Hopefully the gap in reviews won’t be as long as the gap between acquisition and this one, and since work has calmed down somewhat, hopefully it should be within a week. Until then, feel free to pick up a copy for yourself. In fact, if you know me at all, I’d really appreciate it, as I would love to get the chance to play this game, based on what I’ve seen so far.

* Sorry, my atheistic side comes out around now, and I struggle to think of any any religion as being anything other than fictional.

Jul 232013
 

5117mwAhWcL._Yeah, not so much a gaming blog post right now, but this entire series would certainly make it into my own Appendix N, along with the works of Joe Abercrombie, so here we go. To bring you up to speed, it’d be better if you’d already read Mister Lynch’s first two books, so I’ll just wait until you’re done.

How amazing was that? The bit with the Spider? I mean, just wow! Ahem, anyway.

Imagine that instead of waiting for the official release of The Republic of Thieves in October, you would have to wait seven whole years. That’s how long I’ve been waiting for this bad boy. Mister Lynch has had some reasonably well documented problems with depression and anxiety, and as such he has been taking just as long as he needs to finish the third part of his Gentlemen Bastards series. I don’t hold it against him; I am lucky enough to have his problems, but I am still very sympathetic.

What made the wait all the worse was that because I work in a bookshop I was constantly seeing publication dates that were never honoured, just extended. But I never gave up hope. I checked weekly on Mr. Lynch’s website, started following him on Twitter and bugged the hell out of the rep who came into the store. Eventually my patience was rewarded, and not long after that I managed to grab hold of an advanced proof copy.

And last night I finished it.

Before I get into the meat of the review, I will say that I will do my damndest to steer clear of spoilers from this latest novel, but I make no such promises about the first two. If you haven’t read them yet, you’ve been warned.

As you can imagine, I had built up a lot of expectation for this one. Seven years is a long time to get excited about a novel. I can say without hesitation though that it lived up to and beyond all my expectations. The return of Locke Lamorra as the self indulgent whiner we know he can become from his time during Red Seas… was handled excellently. After refusing to let his closest friend Jean die at the close of the last book, we begin this one with Locke at death’s door, and Jean doing everything possible to keep Locke firmly ensconced within the land of the living.

Breaking the law is of course included in this, and leads to the opening of the adventure; a story of politics and betrayal, love and loss, crime and vengeance. Throughout all of that, what this story is rally about is relationships. In the last book it was all about Locke and Jean and the deep trusting friendship they share in spite of the troubles that they never seem able to shake. Although this friendship is still very much evident throughout this third installment, the focus rests more on Locke and the woman he loves: Sabetha.

Sticking to his tried and tested formula of interweaving the past with the present, we’re shown how the two love birds first managed to get over their stubbornness and shyness and get together (a long clumsy and embarrassing tale that nevertheless captivates from beginning to end), while also watching their stumbling steps as they try to re-kindle that bright flame of adoration after a five year gap. All this done to either the back drop of young criminals finding a place in the world, or experienced confidence tricksters and thieves rigging the election of a massively powerful city state.

Mr. Lynch knows how to write relationships well. Friendship and betrayal seem to come easy to him, and he easily draws you into the lives of his protagonists. For this reason alone, this book should be required reading for gamers everywhere. We will all remember that time when our wits were as whip-crack fast as Locke and Sabetha’s, and the probably more common times we came up with a perfectly dry zinger that would have put Jean in his place, but just a few seconds/minutes/years too late.

The humour is another great reason to read this book. I lost count of how many times my girlfriend gave me a funny look as I burst out laughing as she sat on the sofa playing the Xbox. Sometimes the humour comes out nowhere and knocks you for six in an otherwise serious scene, sometimes it builds up perfectly until your sat giggling away like a school child. But there are even more reasons to read this book!

It is just full of ideas. Plot fodder galore lines the pages, from subtle ploys to long-game cons that could shape the future of an entire city state. So many things to do in a fantasy city, and with very little effort could lead onto massive plots in pretty much any genre. While we’re here lets talk about genre shall we. The Gentleman Bastards series take place in a Renaissance level world in terms of technology, with a few notable advances to near Victorian levels, and magic filling a few other gaps along the way. The magic, or rather almost total lack thereof, is one of my favourite things about the series. True, we once again get to see some action from the world’s only magic users – the Bondsmagi – but they are so powerful, and so few, that they’re more plot device than set dressing, but not so overpowered that they act as omnipotent MacGuffins. They are used perfectly as a driving force behind the scenes, without much being known about them, even after a very curious Locke starts to ask questions.

As proven in the last book, a quick wit and a good plan is enough to bring at least one of them down. And so we finally come to my favourite reason why you should read this, and all the other books Mr. Lynch has written; they’re stories about human triumph in the face of overwhelming odds. They show the human spirit at its finest, while never shying away from shining a light on its darkest times too. All the better to show the effort and struggle put in to move beyond the depths and once more shine.

To sum up then; buy this book. True, as a role player I can think of a few extra reasons why it’s worth picking up, but everything good about it works no matter who the person is that’s reading it. It is from start to finish a work of wonder, and I say again: very much worth the wait.

Jul 162013
 
spring-heeled-menace-Cover-240x300

Click to download the FREE Penny Dreadful “The Spring Heeled Menace”.

I have barely scratched the surface of this impressive tome, and so don’t want to jump the gun and start reviewing it until I know what’s actually under the skin of this bad boy. I can tell you straight off the bat that it has my attention though. As mentioned in my Kuro review, I’m a big fan of using fiction to open a rule book. It does a better job of giving the players an idea of what to expect than any number of pages talking about what role playing is, and make for a darned sight more interesting read too. As I said though, I don’t want to jump straight into a review just yet.

Instead I’m going to be sharing with you some fun little bits and pieces and the smashing folks over at Cubicle 7 have on offer to entice people to pick up this lovely looking book. Today we have a totally free adventure for the game. The title of this one grabbed me straight away, as my favourite bit of steampunk fiction has a similar name. This story goes down a  different route, and one I’m not going to spoil for you here. I will say though that it’s a very well put together adventure, with plenty of scope of follow on investigations, and there should be no problem bringing in any group of characters to solve this little mystery.

Click the image to download it, and pop back here tomorrow for a set of pre-created player characters to hand out, just to save you the bother of making them yourself. Oh, and if you don’t have it yet, better go and pick up the actual game too. You’ll totally need it to run the adventure, and so far, I’m pretty damned impressed with it.

Jun 272013
 

cogsThis review has been far too long in coming. This is down to several reasons; I’ve just been busy with my day job working odd shifts so I haven’t had as much time as I usually would do to absorb something like this, and the time I have had has been spent on getting some ideas down for my own Steampunk RPG before I forget them all. And then there’s the fact that I just don’t think that this RPG was designed with me in mind. This isn’t saying that it isn’t great – I’ll get to the good bits shortly – but there were times when I found myself flicking past pages at a time because there wasn’t much to interest me.

It is a very light system, and all the rules – including character creation – take up so little space, it made me wonder what Ms. Hardy was going to do with the rest of the pages. A lot of the space was very well used, with some cracking adventures in there, running from the kind of intro game that a group could get through in a couple of hours, to a much more involved multi-scene set up that begs to be explored in detail. There was plenty of background about the game world too, with time lines mixing up some real world events with the fantastical happenings of the Empire of Steam. I could honestly go back and read them again, just for the fun of it, to enjoy some top notch writing.

But then there was a whole bunch of pages explaining to me what a role playing game was, and how to GM. I don’t mind these sections, but even in bigger games they don’t seem to make up as much of the page count and make more sense. Everything about this game screams to me that it should be picked up and played in less than an hour after purchase, with people who have never role played before. In my earlier review of the game I said that it reminded me of the Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The core of this game still does. You could still have a great deal of fun playing this with friends whom have never rolled a dice outside of a game of Monopoly, as long as you don’t let them read the rule book.

For experienced gamers, there’s a lot that night not necessarily be relevant, and for people who are joining a game of Steampunk silliness, they could be a little bit intimidating. That much information for a light hearted and system light game (seriously, the entire thing comes down to a D6 roll and some explanation as to why it will work, and you’re done) is a tad unnecessary. Does all of this mean that I didn’t like it though? Hell! No!

It looks an absolute riot, and I will totally be running it for our new season Freshers come the end of summer. It is a perfect example ofcakes how little is required to get an idea across of theme and genre, and tack that onto a system that anyone can understand. The look of the book is remarkable, with layout and artwork of a very high professional quality. I know I mentioned this before, but the artwork is a huge win. Cartoony, but not so much that it detracts from the feel. The best way to describe it would be Steampunk caricature gone mad. With a system as light as this is, you need to take every chance you get to highlight the setting and the feel you’re trying to achieve, and every bit of art used is perfect.

And I cannot commend Lynne Hardy enough for her writing in this. Everything from the character creation, through adventure writing and back ground on the Empire of Steam is pitch perfect. I have no problem at all giving her a huge bunch of the credit for inspiring me to start writing an RPG of my own, as I would love to be thought of as even half a good Steampunk creator as she clearly is.

The thing I look for in any system is that in compliments the setting, rather than being just a mechanical way of working out random events. There are three attributes in the game, and you already know what they’re called: Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks. That’s it. And you basically have two different levels they can be, so making the decision about balance takes less time than it does to brew a proper pot of tea. The only bit that you’re going to have to put some thought into is how your attributes are applied. Rather than having full skill lists, you just pick an area of specialty for each attribute, and as long as you can apply it to the test, you get a bonus.

This is a great idea, and another one that I’ve found myself incorporating into the way I play other games, as it gives me a much better feeling of being involved in the narrative. This is a boon to all players; the more experienced will relish the challenge of bringing in their specialties as often as possible while new gamers will be given the opportunity to delve deeper into a character as much as they like.

In conclusion, I think this a grand old game, full of cracking writing that jumps off the page. I can’t wait to run this game for some people to see what they take away from it, but I think someone new to the hobby might be put off by the sheer bulk of the text about gaming that may not ever apply to them. If you fancy some kick ass, light-hearted fun involving some alternate Victorian silliness, then this is very much for you.

May 242013
 

cogsSadly I find myself unable to afford the full edition of this game at present, but after thoroughly enjoying the work the did on the Lovecraft/WWII mash-up that was Achtung! Cthulhu, I just had to give this is a look. I adore Steampunk you see. To this day, the only game I have ever tried to design from the ground up has been a Steampunk card game of high adventure and exploration. My two favourite RPGs are both Steampunk inspired, being the original and wonderful Deadlands, and the gas-mask chic game of Neo-Vicotrian horror that is Unhallowed Metropolis.

This particular product took my fancy after reading the blurb on the back of the book, as it reminded me a lot of the superb little game The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchhausen. It seems like they have taken the time to boil down a lot of the fripperies of Steampunk, and just keep the basic essence that makes it so much fun. The artwork alone does a great job of this. In the few pages I’ve been able to see so far, it mixes photography of Victorian objects with caricature like drawings of Steampunk characters. Although these are simple drawings indeed, they perfectly illustrate the lightweight feel of the game.

And boy is it lightweight. Just three stats per character – with specialisations – that are reduced as damage is dealt until the unlucky PC passes out from their wounds. So very simple, and perfect for a bit of light-hearted fun over tea and cake. I would be interested in seeing the rest of the book, as I think the adventures they include would be grand old fun indeed. As well as taking Steampunk as their biggest inspiration, the storytelling style is claimed to be all Pulp! Another thing I can really get behind, as whenever I run the current incarnation of Deadlands, it always has a Pulp feel to it.

If your purse stretches to it, based on nothing but the few pages I have seen, I would advise you go pick this one up. Even the full game is still a very reasonable price indeed.

Apr 152013
 

If you have been following my other projects of late, you might think it a bit odd that I’m writing a blog post about not using published adventures less than a fortnight after I uploaded my very own adventure onto DriveThruStuff. Bear with me though, as it will all make sense.

A while back I wrote a little article about a way of cutting down on prep time for running games without sacrificing quality. I think this is very important to a lot of GMs who sometimes don’t get the chance to put the love care and attention into their stories as they would ideally like. We all have lives away from the table, and even when I was young and just starting out in this wonderful little hobby, and had little in the way of responsibility, there were still occasions when a game needed to be run, and there was little prepared in the way of plot-lines and rounded out antagonists. When this happens, it can be sorely tempting indeed to pick up an adventure that someone else has written and put in all the leg work on. It might seem like you’re saving yourself a lot of hassle and time, but sadly, this is very rarely the case.

It’s easy to think that because it’s all laid out there in front of you that you won’t have to do so much to run said game, but I have never found that to be the case. The last time I ran a  pre-written adventure was to try out the system for Only War, a Fantasy Flight Games RPG set in the popular Warhammer 40k universe, all about the Imperial Guard. I went in very prepared for this, and had read the entire Dark Heresy rulebook before hand, as the adventure only had quick start rules, and I didn’t want to be caught with my pants down. Metaphorically speaking…

Even that wasn’t enough though, as I was constantly worried that I was forgetting things that the adventure had included that could be important later on. I am in fact fairly sure I missed out one entire NPC, and got two others mixed up, but I hope that my players never realised. And this is my biggest problem with written adventures; since I never came up with the idea, I feel bad about changing any detail, as it could change the ending, or at least the conclusion. If I’m running an adventure I have created myself, I know the exact thought process behind every decision made when writing it, and where any thread could lead, because I was the one doing said writing.

If I’m working with someone else’s intellectual creation, I don’t know why they made the decisions they did, and sometimes these questions can only be answered by actually playing the game. At which point – if it goes wrong – it’s a bit late to back-track and reevaluate as your players will already have seen the fumble.

Now, there are exceptions to this, as there to everything – except the second law of thermodynamics – and these are adventures written with multiple paths within them. The best example I have seen of this recently was in an adventure I was lucky enough to be able to review as part of Modiphius‘ campaign to back their Achtung! Cthulhu! Kickstarter campaign. From the get go, this laid out a few paths that could be taken, dependent on the wishes of the players, and the abilities of the characters.

This is a much better way of writing an adventure, but can still take more time to prep than if you are running your own adventures, because you still have a written conclusion that really should be the final aim. Going into an adventure expecting it to end in a certain way means being prepared for all the eventualities that a group a of players will throw at you, and when doing so within the confines of another person’s ideas, it can be tricky to do so without it coming across as the most rail road-y of rail roads.

Is there still a time to run published adventures? Well, of course there are! The adventure I keep subtly linking you to was written for a gaming tournament. It was supposed to be played over two session split by a lunch break, and in such a way as to be as close to the same as possible for two different groups, so that they could be judged fairly against each other. This is an extreme example, but I’m sure that a lot of GMs out there write adventures ahead of time if they’re going to be running a game at a convention. This is the kind of time we really like having the leg work done for us.

The important thing to remember though, is that just because some has started the job for you, that doesn’t mean you get to put in any less effort. If you want the payers to have a good time, then you need to know the adventure just as well as if you had written yourself…