Monday, May 30, 2011

Tommy's Take on MACHO: Last Action Heroes

In honor of Memorial Day, a review of an RPG about badasses! MACHO: Last Action Heroes is an RPG about in-your-face, balls to the wall, action hero goodness. I'm not 100% sure if it's meant to be a mocking parody or an affectionate parody, but the foreword in the beginning feels pretty heartfelt and makes me lean towards the latter.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: MACHO is a stand-alone RPG from Channel M Publishing, with a PDF price of $5. The book is only 34 pages, but it only paints the setting in broad strokes. The system aims to allow you to be able to play pretty much any action movie character type from Bruce Lee (who is his own character type, you know) to Batman to Robocop to Captain America to Hulk Hogan.

Each character type (or Cliche) gains a bonus, such as the Player getting a +1 to all dice when dealing with women, or Martial Arts Masters getting +2 to Hand to Hand Damage. From there, you spread 10 points among four Attributes: Muscle, Brains, Attitude and Macho. These are ranked on a scale of 1 to 5, with 4 being Superhuman and 5 being unattainable at the beginning of the game.

Macho helps derive your Macho points, which are used to power Para-Macho-Abilities, and Muscle helps derive both your Tough Points and your Speed. Once you have those, you spend 10 points across 11 Skills, with no starting skills going above 3 and no skills ever going past 5. Your skills are Deebo (intimidation, essentially), Drive, Explosives, Fixit, Geek, Mack, Hand to Hand, Ranged, Sneak, Melee, Medic and Stunt.

After that comes Para-Macho-Abilities, of which you get three. Some of my favorites include Aaay (making machines work with a light hit, ala The Fonz), Magic Bullet (crazy trick shots) and Ninja Vanish. Every character is part of a secret society called, er, SOCIETY, founded by George Washington, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (who wrote a secret amendment to the Constitution granting the SOCIETY the authority to kick ass after they had to fend off an extra-dimensional invasion). Rather than buying equipment with their own money, SOCIETY members are given an allowance from the organization to buy their weaponry and vehicles with.

The system is pretty simple, a dice pool in which you roll an Attribute plus a skill as a pool of d6s. 4, 5 and 6 are Awesome Rolls and 1, 2 and 3 take away from the successful rolls. If you roll all 1s, it's a big botch. If you roll all 6s (and you have to roll at least two dice to do this), it's a big deal and you get an extra Macho point.

Speaking of: In addition to powering Para-Macho-Abilities, Macho Points are used for advancement as well, and are gained by the above "all 6" rolls, as well as just generally being Macho.

The world is mostly defined by the adversaries, which include a bin Laden knock-off on steroids, a Russian mob that employs old movie monsters, ninjas (of course), a group of feminist amazons and the Hnt'rs, who are not at all Predators. Oh, and the People for the Ethical Equality of Everything (or P.E.E.E.).

The adversaries/bestiary chapter is broken down into Everyday Joes, Minions (Generic Ninjas, Monsters, Zombies, Hnt'r Warriors, Morph-Bots and more) and Bosses like the Executionator, Hnt'r Chief and Supervillains.

According to an ad in the back of the book, MACHO: A Fist Full of Bullets is coming later this year.

WHAT WORKS: While it isn't politically correct, it doesn't push the envelope remotely as much as the games I have been reviewing recently, meaning it's probably safer for a broader audience. It is tailor made for a slightly tongue in cheek version of an all-star action movie set-up ala The Expendables, allowing for a pretty decent range of character types and adversaries.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: The book was riddled with typos, in headings and buried in the text. For those worried about game balance, Muscle seemed a tad overly strong, since it is used to get your Tough Points, Speed and affect your damage, while Attitude is pretty much used in roleplay situations. A broader list of Para-Macho-Abilities would have been great, as I could see characters stepping over each other pretty quickly, especially in a larger group. Oh, and ranking The Von Erich Family above Chuck Norris in the Macho Hall of Fame?!?! Are you nuts? I also question The A-Team and MacGyver as being sources of "Grade A" senseless violence, as A-Team was notorious for its "bloodless carnage" and MacGyver was designed specifically as a counter to "violent cop shows".

CONCLUSION: A little editing could have gone a long ways here on the presentation, which also suffered from lackluster art. That being said, there could easily be much fun had with any group willing to embrace the tropes and kick some ass for a night or two of beer and pretzels gaming. I am terribly interested in the superhero RPG advertised in the back of the book, however.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Weekend News Update

Caladon Falls Still Needs Your Help

Time is drawing near on the Caladon Falls fundraiser, and Savage Mojo still needs your help. A great campaign with a nice twist on standard fantasy that, I think, appeals to the Savage Worlds fans who also like stuff like Warhammer and Dragon Age.

The RPG Blog Alliance

I'm not usually a "joiner", but here I am, a member of the RPG Blog Alliance. After just a couple of days, we are already more than 100 blogs strong, and in addition to hosting a combined RSS Feed, the RPG Blog Alliance has their own centralized set of message boards.

I Have Seen Savage Worlds Deluxe And It Is GOOD.

As part of my work as a freelancer, on such projects as *redacted*  and *redacted*  (both coming soon), I have been allowed a prerelease look at Savage Worlds Deluxe. Honestly, from everything I had heard, I was incredibly skeptical about the need for Savage Worlds Deluxe, but those thoughts disappeared pretty quickly digging into the book. The return of *redacted*  was surprising, but not unexpected, and very welcome. The section on *redacted*  is really great, providing more *redacted*  for players and GMs. As good as it is, the new *redacted* don't quite work for me as well as the old ones do, and I was kinda surprised at the complete removal of *redacted*. It's some really good stuff that will hopefully take Savage Worlds to that next level.

Part-Time Gods Shatters Another Benchmark

Eloy Lasanta's Part-Time Gods kickstarter just keeps on going, breaking the $6,000 mark...astonishing. He's been releasing regular updates over on the Kickstarter page, including art previews.

Development Issues

The Sekrit Projekt I mentioned last week is probably NOT going to be showing up around October after all, especially if I plow ahead with pursuing a commercial license and Pinnacle does approve it. I have been tapping some of my contacts for advice and aid, and I'm ultimately thinking I may need to go back to the drawing board. However, I will get SOMETHING out the door in time for Halloween, regardless.

Postmortem Video Trailers

Ian Warner of Postmortem Studios sent me links to all of these the other day, and while I had seen the Tough Justice one, the rest were new to me...behold, the YouTube trailers for four of Postmortem's games!

Invaderz Pocket Edition

Tough Justice

Agents of SWING


I'm off this weekend, starting a new job on Tuesday...I plan on releasing reviews of Sword Noir, The Path of Kane and MACHO over the weekend, for your reading pleasure. Thanks!

Interview with James "Grim" Desborough

As Postmortem Studios Week draws to a close, I was pleased to have the opportunity to conduct an interview with founder James "Grim" Desborough, originator of the Shadow World (which I reviewed much of this week), as well as writer of Agents of SWING and numerous other projects. My apologies if my interview skills don't do the subject justice.


TB: First off, you've been around the RPG scene a while, both with your own company and otherwise. Tell us a bit about that. What are some of your favorite books you've worked on?

JGD: I guess I am getting old yeah... *chuckle*. My first forays into publication were photocopied fanzine type affairs. A little mag for a PBM game called Brass Stud that went under just as I was about to get going and a little magazine I put out around my school called HARDWARE, which was full of hand-drawn comics, and little articles put together on my Atari ST. I followed that up with some naughty photocopied source stuff for Cyberpunk that I shouldn't have done... I was 15/16 or so.... go figure... but my first big break came about with my writing Partner Steve 'Big Steve' Mortimer. He's stuck to being an IT professional since, though he helps me out on occasion and we both sob over a whisky now and then that we didn't have a better deal over The Munchkin's Guide to Powergaming as otherwise we'd both be rolling in dough.

Curse that Steve Jackson, curse him.

Also bless him for giving us our first break in writing The Munchkin's Guide because that's what kind of got the ball rolling for me back in 99/2000. From there Mongoose wanted me to do some humour books, which I did, that lead into other work and I've been pottering about all over the place freelancing like a whore ever since, as well as publishing my own stuff since the dot-com bubble bursting left me out of a job for two years and it was either start my own business or become a chav.

TB: On another board, you recently said that the game you made that more people should be aware of is the Blood! RPG. Tell us a bit about that. What sets it apart from other horror games?

JGD: Blood! was a sort of chance find for me and my group, back around 90/91 or so. I was in Esdevium Games in Aldershot - which was this sort of mecca of gaming back then - and wandering up and down the aisles in sheer shock and awe at the amount of goodies there were when a picture of a face nailed to a table caught my eye. I picked it up and bought it, I can't remember what else I bought that day and we started playing it also immediately. I don't know what grabbed us so much about Blood! really, but we've always had a really good time with it. Considering it came out at the same time as Vampire, which changed EVERYTHING, it's unashamedly old school, almost a sort of mash-up between Call of Cthulhu and Rolemaster in a lot of ways but damn it... the crunch WORKS really well for horror. The critical hit tables, the sense of vulnerability, the resource-tracking of blood, energy and health. It shouldn't work but somehow it does.

Anyway, always loved the game and for years was trying to track down Norley Tucker and the guys who'd originally written it, all of whom have gone on to do pretty normal things really! Eventually I tracked them down and got permission to do a re-issue, so I updated the game and brought it back to life. What sets it apart for me is that it's a real labour of love. I adore that game, especially for survival horror, so I was in pure 'SQUEE!' mode the whole time I was re-writing it. What makes it different I think, to the crop of current horror games, is that it takes this more mechanistic approach rather than a story approach. It's visceral and bloody rather than psychological and the mechanics lead the way. You could almost call it 'Old School' I guess.

It shouldn't work, but it does.

TB: Postmortem Studios has a knack for mixing biting social commentary with a healthy mix of humor in your games. More impressively, you make games that are actually playable as well as funny. I mean, WizKid IS essentially a functional Harry Potter RPG. Is it difficult striking that balance between funny and playable?

JGD: Satire is relatively easy, comedy is bloody difficult, especially in games because you'd no real control over what people are going to do with it. That's why I think a formulaic approach - such as I used on Invaderz and Urban Faerie work pretty well. The whole Shadow World line kind of spawned out of my frustrations with the Camarilla LARP society from the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, White Wolf's mismanagement, the incompetence, cheating, backstabbing and stupidity of the people who ended up in charge of the group through sheer attrition and the whole revival-goth scene that was going on at the same time. I had my personal demons to exorcise and so Bloodsucker was the way to do that. I'd pretty much gotten that out of my system with Bloodsucker though I had notes on what I'd do in the other games if I was going to do them and, frankly, vitriol really helps in humour, taking the piss out of things comes easy to me. There's a Henry Rollins quote that sums it up I think:

"Like a lot of you I hate. A lot. The difference is that I hate with style and creativity."

Ian Warner came to me, having loved Bloodsucker and we got talking about supplementary material and he wanted to see these other games. Without my scattershot ideas going on and a bunch of freelancing I simply don't have time to do all the game support that I'd like to, so we ended up with him taking over the line - based on my notes - and kind of doing his own thing, splitting the profits. Wizkid is primarily his work rather than mine, though there was a bit of an editing and directing hand going on. I knew I wanted to make fun of slash fiction, the teen witch craze and everything and Ian delivered.

I think so long as you make a solid, fun game, it's going to be playable whatever else you have going on. So... no, I don't think it's that much of a challenge to strike the balance so long as you have a solid system at work behind it. Xpress and Beer & Crisps seem to work for that.

TB: Obviously, Postmortem Studios has little use for political correctness (and good, I say). However, do you think this helps Postmortem as a company, by providing well-written, adult fare...or does it hurt Postmortem as a company, by potentially alienating potential customers?

JGD: It's not so much political correctness that we have an issue with, the idea of being inclusive and thoughtful of others is a good one, the problem we have is that it's used as a stick to beat people with by people who are, in the main, hypocrites and who do exactly the same sorts of things they accuse others of doing. I'm interested in controversial topics, I like humour that sails close to the bone and I'm British - we use swearing like punctuation. If this rubs a few people up the wrong way, fuck 'em. Problems are 90% of the time due to people's comprehension, so I don't let it worry me too much.

TB: When Invaderz Pocket Edition was released, you went with an "app pricing" model, similar to the one that Adamant Entertainment recently abandoned for their ICONS line. How did that fare for you?
JGD: I was a bit more cautious than Adamant and I predicted - rightly - that it would be a boom then a slump as people grabbed all the stuff they really wanted cheap and then... ran out. I think the audience is too small and the product cycle too slow to fully support the app model BUT I do think it has a place. I have a LOT of ideas for little mini games and experiments - like Ace of Hearts - and I have a lot of ideas for things that are fill-in games, the kind of pick up and play stuff you do when someone can't make a session. I think these things - and adventures - are perfect for app pricing, but people are certainly willing to shell out more for a decent game and the difference in sales between $1.99 and $9.99 really isn't that massive. We sold more Wizkids than Invaderz with Wizkids at full price and Invaderz at app price. That said, we sold more Invaderz Pocket Edition - straight away - than we sold of the old Invaderz at full price over its entire sales span.

Cheap encourages people to take a risk, it's great for short indie games, story games or experiments and it means you get your investment back quickly. Great for adventures too. It's really worked with Invaderz, Ace of Hearts and the 6-Pack adventures we do so you'll continue to see app-priced products from me, when it's appropriate.

TB: In the past and present, Postmortem Studios has supported OGL, 4e, Pathfinder, Tunnels and Trolls, and now FATE, in addition to your own, in-house systems such as Xpress. Does Postmortem plan to pursue any more licensee agreements in the near future?

JGD: Using existing systems is a great development shortcut, it's also a more solid basis from which to modify and 'fix' to your needs, as I did with FATE for Agents of SWING. I'm a 'system matters' kind of guy though and sometimes an existing system just isn't right for a game you're working on and you have to find something of your own. We will be using/licensing other systems. A couple of d6 games are in the works - early stages - and I'm in negotiation to use Savage Worlds and Silhouette for potential future projects. I'm also trying to formalise arrangements to produce official - un-buggered with - support for C7's FATE games.

TB: Savage Worlds? Now that's awesome. Anyone who reads the blog knows I'm a HUGE Savage Worlds fan. Can you touch on what that might entail, even vaguely? (I understand if you can't, but the fanboy in me has to ask). 

JGD: That may entail a sort of 'space camelot' game that I was approached with - I'm trying to do more to help other new writers get stuff out there. Also a South American company wants to do a Savage Worlds version of '45: Psychobilly Retropocalypse. They've applied separately but if that gets approved I see no reason why that might not happen at some point in the future.

TB: Shadow World is a parody of/homage to the World of Darkness (as well as other pop culture)...and has spawned three games thus far. How far are you planning to go with it?

JGD: Shadow-World will go on as far and as long as Ian wants to take it. I know some work/thought has gone into Construct and Dogboy but what comes of that remains to be seen. I know Ian's going to take a little bit of a break after Courtesans to work on some novels and things but I'm sure he won't be away for too long. For myself I intend to blog some more support for the games and we'll see if anything comes of that. Cantrip Comprehensive for Wizkid, particularly, I want to finish blogging and maybe write up/edit into a full supplement. Private school settings don't give me the venue to relate the horrors of my own experiences at school *grin*.

TB: Congratulations on the success of Agents of S.W.I.N.G. Will there be any further support for Agents? What about any future FATE-based games?

JGD: Thank you, it kind of took me by surprise... I had lots of plans for support products but the popularity of the game has meant that it suddenly becomes a lot more pressing. I've commissioned Nefarious, which will be a villain/organisation book, I have another adventure - Snake Eyes - which is just about ready to go, I have Control's Casefile which is the GMs version of the Agent's Casefile - and will contain errata, villain, henchman, goon and plot worksheets as well as references and there's plans for Section books and villain books. So there will be support. Part of the problem is that I want to use the same people for the art and the wonderful Brad McDevitt tends to get booked solid. We've talked though and we'll see what we can do.

As I said before I want to support Starblazer and Anglerre by C7 and given the popularity and warm reception given to my spin on FATE in Agents of SWING I may push another one of my projects, a re-take on the Flash Gordon/Rocketship genre up the schedule and do it for FATE rather than d6, the system decision is one I've been umming and ahhing about for a while but this success may settle it.

*Sigh* Too many ideas, not enough help or money.

TB: And just a fairly silly question: Do you have a "dream" project that you have been unable to do for any reason, (maybe it's a license, maybe it's a collaboration with someone who has been unavailable, etc)? If so, what might that be?
JGD: I wanted to work on a game set in Bas Lag, but Adamant beat me to the punch there. I did, at one time, have licensing rights to Peter F Hamilton's work, but no company was interested in pursuing it at the time and I wasn't in a position to do so myself. A dream project... hmm... actually I want to move over to MMORPGs and bring more of a tabletop sensibility and advantage to some of their design choices. So many of them are stuck on a class/level mentality and that's an eventual dead-end, as I think WoW is discovering about now. Some modern design ideas and a more sandboxy style might help a niche MMO stand out from the crowd and be something greater than 'kill them and take their stuff' for 100 levels. So I guess that would be my dream at the moment, give MMO design a dry slap to wake it up.

TB: Anything else you would like to add/pimp/promote?

JGD: Just keep an eye on me please! I'm on twitter, you can find me on facebook, the company blog is fairly active. The one thing I really crave that I don't get enough of is interaction with people who play my stuff. I want that interaction, I want that community, I want to know what people want so please, get in touch, any of those places or the forums on UKRoleplayers that are set up for Postmortem material.

TB: Thanks for your time!
And now I feel like I need to not only check out Blood!, but I wanna see this "Camelot in Space" business for Savage Worlds!

Hope you all enjoyed Postmortem Week...later today I'll post a little round-up of stuff, including one more special Postmortem treat.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Tommy's Take on Agents of SWING

Okay, on one hand, I haven't found a FATE book that I could really get into. On the other hand, I have come to expect lots of good from Postmortem Studios, whether the book is written by James "Grim" Desborough (as this one is) or his protege Ian Warner (seriously, check out the Tough Justice review I posted yesterday).

Agents of S.W.I.N.G. has been quite the success for Postmortem Studios, but can it sway a guy like me, who has been less than enchanted with the FATE system?

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: No one can write a small FATE book. This is a scientifically proven fact. Agents of S.W.I.N.G. is no exception, weighing in at a hefty 344 pages and $9.99 in PDF or available in both softcover and hardcover from Lulu. There are also two supplements already, the Agent's Casefile and the Control's Casefile, each available for free if you download, or in print for under $5.

The premise is that Agents of S.W.I.N.G. is a FATE-powered Spy-Fi game set in the 60s and 70s and drawing from sources like The Avengers, The Man from UNCLE and James Bond. SWING is the "Supreme World Intelligence Network Group", a secret espionage agency that is basically holding off all the bad stuff that the Cold War powers can't be bothered with because they are too busy suspecting each other of Very Bad Things.

Each player needs three six sided dice, apparently of different colors (any colors will do, but the author recommends red, white and blue), and I would note that Pandora can be used to set up a good 60s and 70s soundtrack for you if you like background music.

The Orientation Chapter is a well-written piece that tries to set the stage for roleplaying in 1967, noting not only the differences in philosophies, but in the flow of information as well (governments and media outlets were the end-all, be-all, you know). From there we dig into the mysterious organization one knows how long it's been around, where the money comes from, and it's structure. Section 1 is Command, 2 is Administration, 3 is Quartermaster, 4 is Finance, 5 is Crime (as in "fighting", not "committing"), 6 is Information, 7 is Deadly Force, 8 is Uncanny Affairs, 9 is Specialists, 10 is Acquisitions, 11 is Internal Affairs, 12 is Espionage and 13 is -- well, there is no 13. Stop asking. Interestingly, a prototype supercomputer named ERIC2 is "boss" of the organizations, selecting agents for missions from the pool, sometimes seemingly at random. Each section is explained in detail, what they do, both at base and in the field. This is some interesting stuff...for instance, section 7 (the assassins) also double as "Jacks of All Trades"...the Finance Department, in the field, can requisition large sums of money at a moment's notice, etc. As you may have guessed, Section 11 (Internal Affairs) works under cover...even hiding their purpose from their fellow Agents.

SWING deals with organized crime, secret societies, mad science gone amok, the supernatural and even The Cold War. In all, the Orientation chapter provides a very extensive look at how the Agency operates, but still reads well and reads quickly.

The Induction chapter is character creation. First, get a concept, and then a name. FATE characters are defined in no small part by Aspects, and you take one based off of your Section. The author provides three sample Aspects for each Section, like Deadly Force "I Never Miss, Unless It's On Purpose" or Internal Affairs "Forever Vigilant". Next, an Aspect needs to be keyed to your character's Past, and finally, their Cover (every Agent has a cover story). From there, you define five more Aspects for your character, and then there are about 30 skills (ranked +8 to -3), with 20 points to spend. Finally, you get four stunts, of which there are a crap ton from which you can choose. You get a number of FATE points equal to 10 minus your starting number of Stunts.

One thing I've never been a fan of is really abstract damage, which FATE uses. There are three "Stress" tracks, Physical Stress, Composure Stress and Social Stress. Characters can opt to take "consequences" instead of suffering Stress damage.

I do like Advancement, which awards Skill Points at the beginning of a session and encourages you to spend them in the middle of the session, presumably when a new skill would be incredibly useful.

For most actions, you roll one of your dice and subtract another from it, then add your relevant skills to it to determine your Effort. The margin of success (or failure) are called Shifts, and are sometimes just cosmetic, but other times (such as in combat) play an important role in resolution. This can range from Disaster to Significant Failure to Failure to Minimal Success, Notable Success or Amazing Success. If you get more than three Shifts, you get a Swing die, which can be rolled with your positive and negative dice, and used to replace one or the other.

You can spend FATE points to activate Aspects, gaining bonuses to actions, or activate your own negative Aspects in order to regain FATE points. This also allows for some "creative editing"...making small changes to a scene that might benefit you.

Helpfully, we also get a list of examples of Consequences here, for each category and severity. A minor Physical consequence might be heavy bruising, while an extreme one could be crippled, for instance.

The Skills and Stunts chapter starts off by breaking down all of the skills, including any special uses of the skill (like Empathy being used to uncover Social or Mental Aspects). Similarly, all of the stunts are detailed here, like All The World's A Stage, which prevents you from making a worse impression than you started with, or Made of Steel, which lets you avoid your first point of Physical Stress.

The Quartermaster chapter is the equipment chapter, although it is handled differently than some games, as working for an agency provides you with a certain amount of equipment for each mission (three sets of ID is standard issue for SWING). It's a pretty decent list, covering melee, ranged and even explosive weapons...and weapons can even gain Advances like Accurate or Poisoned. A healthy list of spy equipment is also covered, like safecrackers, parachutes and so on, with their own list of Advancements. Of course, vehicles are also listed, with Advances like Caltrops, so your sports car can burst the tires of those following them in a high speed chase!

The GM chapter hits a lot of the old standbys, but also covers "Plot Stress", which is essentially a running tally of a minimum number of tasks that must be completed before the PCs can get on with the next scene. This also runs through a bit of pacing, such as the PCs getting hit with setbacks. A catch-all of miscellaneous rules are also present here, from falling damage to being set on fire to poisons and diseases. This chapter also discusses Villains, Henchmen (their right hand men) and Goons (the mooks). Villains are statted up just like PCs, Henchmen are slightly more abstracted and Goons are basically in a group before they can amount to a threat.

The Organisations chapter is all about building organisations, beginning with Scale (from Tiny to Enormous), which also affects the number of Skills and Aspects the organisation has. Next, you set the Scope, which can range from Local go Global. Oddly, this is one of the few chapters that doesn't really provide any examples, and it is sorely missed.

SWINGers is a bunch of sample characters/NPCs, a great many of whom are very thinly veiled take-offs on famous characters who served as inspiration for the source material...including The Professor, in case you're curious as to how to stat up The Doctor (as in Who?) in Agents of SWING.

A handful of villainous organisations (including a neo-nazi group and the giggle-inducing control freaks known as CONDOM) is laid out, serving also as examples of the Organisation rules from a couple of chapters back, plus providing examples of villains, henchmen and goons.

The Years is a timeline covering the 60s and 70s.

A whole slew of handouts follows, from character sheets to how chase scenes are handled to weapon and vehicle stats. There's even a table of contents at the back of the book, right before the index.

WHAT WORKS: I think I actually "get" FATE now, in part because of the author's writing and examples, and in part because of my experience with ICONS, which really does work as an "introduction to FATE". The author does a great job, however, especially with providing examples and with laying out the functions of SWING...the part about Sections and what they do in and out of the field is just great work. I admit I'm not up on my Spy-Fi, so I know I missed some references in the SWINGers chapter, but the ones I did catch were pretty great. The art, when used, is pretty evocative of the tone and never overwhelms the book.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: I'm still not sold on FATE as being something me or my normal players would be huge fans of, but that's a personal preference and not a knock on the writing. Really, my biggest complaint is that I think it could have been organized better...especially when you have things like a two page list of Stunts...and later a list of stunts with a quick description...and then a whole chapter devoted to explaining each of the stunts...and then a handout with all those stunts on it. I like quick reference, but that felt excessive. Ultimately, it is a minor complaint as the book never feels "padded" and is certainly not overpriced, in my view. That said, I would have liked a sample treatment on Supernatural and Extranormal adversaries, since a whole section of the Agency is devoted to them.

CONCLUSION: I think it says a lot that FATE is considered "rules-lite", but the author got nearly 20 pages of handouts out of the system. Personally, I'm still not sold on FATE outside of the "beginner's version" found in ICONS, BUT this is a well written incarnation that remains focused on what it is trying to do (with the Spy-Fi genre). As mentioned above, I would have liked a few examples of using supernatural type opposition, since there is a whole Section of the Agency dedicated to it, especially for GMs who have little prior FATE experience to draw from.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tommy's Take on Tough Justice

Tough Justice is a very interesting concept: A courtroom drama game set in the time of "The Bloody Code", running from the late 17th century into the 19th Century. The Bloody Code was known as such, because the courts in England apparently looked to capital punishment as the solution for...just about any crime. The players play Prosecution and Defense in a capital case and, perhaps most interestingly, the game offers "kid gloves" sidebars for running it as an educational experience.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Tough Justice is $9.99 in PDF, or $15.11 through Lulu. The PDF is 260 pages and, while searchable, lacks bookmarks, unfortunate in any PDF over 100 pages. The author, Ian Warner, is a big history buff, which prompted the creation of this game, it seems.

The book includes an astonishing 24 page glossary of slang and legal terms from the era, impressive by any measure. As well, just in case you need it, is a list of English noble titles and how one should address them in conversation.

Characters are defined by six stats, on a scale of 1-5, with 18 points to spend. The six stats are Authority (using facts and logic), Jibe (banter and insults), Charm (people skills), Investigation (er, investigating), Violence (er, violence) and Composure (the ability to keeo your cool). Interestingly, your Composure can Decay throughout the game as you fail Composure rolls. Next, characters can either be Good At two things, or Very Good At one thing...either taking a +1 bonus in two areas, or a +2 bonus in a single area. Finally, you pick a Merit and a Flaw. Merits include bits like Ferreter (making Investigation rolls easier), Unimpeachable Morals (making Jibe harder to use against them) or Water Tight Private Life (making Investigation harder to use aginst them). Flaws include Too Nice By Half (making it harder to use Jibe), Wimp (making it harder to use Violence) and Secret Felony (which provides a chance that the PC may wind up as the defendant!).

Next, the group picks teams (Prosecution and Defense) and assigns Roles. Barristers are the lead on the case. Attorneys are the back-up lawyers, basically, and Allys are pretty much everyone else. Additionally, Prosecution gets Thief Takers, which are kinda like bounty hunters. Finally, the players flesh out their characters' backgrounds in key points, and then agree on Relationships with the other characters (codified in little in-character quoteS). While the book does provide a character creation example, step by step, it also includes half a dozen sample characters spread out among Prosecution and Defense.

Generally, you roll a die and add 1 to it if you're Good at it, or two if you're Very Good at it, and add your relevant statistic. If you have a relevant Merit, you roll two dice and take the highest, if you have a relevant Flaw, then do the same and take the lowest. Pretty basic, but functional. You can also "Play Booty", which is throwing a Challenge. This is most advisable if your Composure is in danger. Additionally, some rolls are just made against a chosen Difficulty, and are not actively opposed by another character. Every Challenge's Win Margin has a wider effect on the case, and is tracked by the GM through Case Points.

Defendant Generation (if the defendant isn't a PC), plays right to my strengths: It's a bunch of random tables. Roll sex, age, profession...Males, Females and Children have their own Professions tables, so you don't wind up with an 8 year old pimp or a 45 year old male midwife. Stats for adults are handled like normal, kids have fewer points. The Profession the defendant has also provides a bonus for either Prosecution or Defense, depending...and some professions can be hidden from the Prosecution, denying them their bonus.

Once the Defendant is created, we move onto the case. A chart is provided for the various offenses, which can provide Defense and Prosecution bonuses. The crimes including Cutting Down Young Trees, Sodomy, Intercepting The King's Mail an Unmarried Mother Concealing A Stillborn Child. There are numerous sidebars here about some of the "crimes", including that last one, as well as combinations that may not make much sense (although you can certainly run with 'em...frankly, I think the idea of a 12 year old on trial for Insurrection is quite interesting).

The GM is recommended to track Case Points secretly, presumably so it would be harder for both sides to "game the system", and I like that approach. Some of the crimes provide bonus case points like the occupations do, so yeah, it is quite possible for someone to wind up with a pretty big lead due to randomization.

Once everything is set up, dive into the Arrest phase. This largely consists of the Thief Taker taking down the Defendant. The example here is darkly humorous with an overzealous Thief Taker pummeling the Defendant (a younger girl) in order to bring her in.

From there we move to the Pre-Trial Phase, which also includes challenges of honor such as Dueling (but only between respectable gentlemen), Pugilism (but only between working class men) and Hag Fights (between working class women). The Pre-Trial Phase takes place over a set number of turns (the default is 7), and each side gets to take an action each turn. The types of actions can vary greatly (allowing each team to play to their strengths), with numerous examples provided for inspiration. For instance, you can start nasty rumors to poison the well against the other side's case, try to intimidate witnesses, seduce a member of the opposing team to learn information and so on. This is followed by a very lengthy example of the pre-trial phase.

By the Trial Phase, Barristers are going to be doing most of the heavy lifting, although there are options for others (namely Allies) to do, such as appear as witnesses or prepare "surprises" for the trial. Again, this goes into each step of the Trial, from describing even the smell of the courtroom to setting the Jury Strenght. The GM gets to sit back and play Judge, reacting to the tricks pulled by Prosecution and Defense. One area where I would part is the Defense's says the GM should decide what stat to use, but unless you're really having issues between the Defendant and the Defense, I don't see why the Defense wouldn't have a say in it. Anywho, Prosecution also has a distinct advantage in that they get to "sum up" their case (think modern closing statements), while the Defense is forbidden from talking to the Jury! The Verdict is a simple matter of comparing the final scores, but the GM (playing as the Jury) should play it up a bit. There ARE rare cases in which a Defendant is found guilty, but is not sentenced to hanging...but most of the time, yeah, victory for the Prosecution does equal death.

But that's not all! There are also last minute twists that can be played, such as female defendants trying to get knocked up in order to avoid the death penalty, or defendants getting cases reopened when it came down to the wire between Prosecution and Defense.

When you get into the final days of the Defendant (if found guilty), there is a surprising amount of room for drama, especially if the Defense did get attached to the Defendant. Five methods of execution are given (Hanging, Burning At The Stake, Beheading, Drawn and Quartering and Firing Squad, although only the military get that last one). Then, the GM gets to decide what to do with the body.

Tough Justice is a largely non-lethal game (for all but the Defendants), so Retirement is presented as an option to get rid of those characters you may not care for any longer. To that end, Advancement goes with the player and not the character, so new characters are on par with existing ones. The final phase of the case is rolling for Felonies...if the PCs broke the law over the course of the game, well, they may have to answer for it.

Appendix One offers some Advanced Rules like Cock Ups, which are (essentially) critical failure rules. Pregnancy rules are also covered, complete with Abortion rules. Other rules include Downtime for PCs, a whole section Tough Justice LARP rules and even allowing the other five stats to degrade the way Composure does.

Appendix Two is full of sample characters, first being NPCs tied into the example case given throughout the book, and the second being half a dozen defendants (2 male, 2 female, 2 child), completely detailed with stats and crimes (and a plug for an upcoming novel).

A two page summary of the entire case proceedings is also given, always a welcome sight.

Finally, we get a heartfelt afterword, a character sheet and an extensive index.

WHAT WORKS: First off, the book is VERY light on art. It is almost all text, which sounds crazy for what is really a rather simple system...except for when you realize that a BIG chunk of the book is a walk-through of playing the game from character creation, on through to post-execution. There really should not be much issue with someone reading the book and going "but what do I DO with it?" I like how, in some areas, the author erred on the side of legal fiction over legal fact, but I thought he also did a tremendous job with conveying The Bloody Code.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: The "rolling for pregnancy" felt strangely out of place, although it may still be justified, seeing as though it is a very valid defense for female prisoners to escape death...I think the Abortion rules might have been just a step too far, though. Also, an electronict book that is 260 pages and does not have bookmarks is disappointing.

CONCLUSION: Okay, I went into this with the expectations of Chav, WizKid and Bloodsucker in my head, even though I was explicitly told that it was more serious...and I wound up completely amazed. Yeah, the book could have been shorter, if you cut out the extensive examples, which I would not recommend. The audience is going to be more limited, given the courtroom drama aspect over more traditional RPG fare but - and pardon my french - Ian Warner managed to turn a passion for history and a particularly insane period of English history into a viable RPG without making a wholly pretentious ass out of himself. Much like their humor games, there is still a very playable game in here, and one that I'll be going so far as to add to my bookshelf and not just my PDF library. Given the quality of the writing (and my love for courtroom drama), I will overlook the "What Doesn't Work" I noted above, and say that this is certainly the most pleasant surprise that I have encountered this year, hands down.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tommy's Take on Bloodsucker: The Angst

And now...Bloodsucker: The Angst, a Tale-Telling game of bitching and self-delusion. This would be the game that spawned the Shadow World line to begin with, originally in the d20 system and now in the Xpress system (and for the better, in my view). You can read my reviews of its sister games Chav and WizKid by clicking on the titles.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Powered by the Xpress System, a d6 dice pool in which your skills set your target numbers, you roll a number of dice equal to the relevant attributes and add up your successes, Bloodsucker is a parody Vampire: The Masquerade, and annoying gothy types in general. While being fully compatible with Chav and WizKid, everything you need is in this book, although there are three supplements available: Bloodsucker: The Juice (just extra stuff for the game), Bloodsucker: The Batshit (the outcasts if the Bloodsucker society) and the Cliquebook: Gothistocrats (Yeah, a full supplement for one of the Cliques of the setting - the Ventrue parody). Bloodsucker is 116 pages and available in PDF through RPGnow, as well as in print through Lulu (as are the other Shadow World books, I neglected to mention).

Like with Chav and WizKid, the "What You Need For Play" has some cute requirements: pancake-white make-up, clove cigarettes, and a complete collection of either Anne Rice or Laurell K. Hamilton books. There's also a saddening discussion of vampires and how they have (d)evolved...from Nosferatu to Angel (Hey, I LIKE Angel) to Twilight's Edward. We also get a hefty glossary of the groups and terms relevant to Bloodsucker society.

Right before we jump into character creation, we get a "Welcome to Eternal Life" letter, which actually does a decent job of spelling out how Bloodsuckers work (sunlight is okay, the rising sun Is Not, decapitation equals instant death, stakes are just paralysis, etc). The character creation is point buy, starting off with a budget of 60 points to spread over the 10 stats and 70 points to spread over the 40 skills. You also get 9 points for Powers, which cost 3 points a level (and are ranked in three levels). Then you top it off with Merits and Flaws and your "Cool" ranking.

The chapter gives us a basic breakdown of the eight Cliques: Crowleys (they use Magic(k)), Freaks (they're the ones who aren't pretty), Gothistocrats (they wanna be in charge, like the Ventrue), Grungies (they are also "back to nature" types), Moshers, Outcasts, Perkies (yes!) and Pretentious Art Whores. There are nine powers, broken into three levels as noted above: Go Faster, Be Stronger, Be Tougher are fairly self-explanatory. Same with Magic(k). Ignored is the minor invisibility, Venom is kinda like mega intimidation, Transmogrification is shape-shifting, Poinging is, well, being chipper...and Dramatics allow you to become the center of attention.

Chav has corruption and WizKid has Wizdom...Bloodsucker has Angst. You gotta stay angsty if you wanna stay in the game. Get non-emo, and you're out.

The Cliques Chapter is broken down like the similar chapters in the sister games (as well as the Clans in Vampire, and the other games that have borrowed from White Wolf). You get an archetype image from the clan, a breakdown of how they act and so on, and then a soundbite regarding how they feel about everyone else. Crowleys want to become the power behind the Gothistocrats, who do NOT consider the Perkies to be Goths, who don't even notice the Outcasts.

The Dramatic Systems chapter is largely the same as the chapters from its sister games, although Bloodsuckers use Juice and not Bile to power their abilities, although Chavs begin with a greater Bile capacity than Bloodsuckers have Juice capacity.

Skills are virtually identical from game to game (which helps with the mixing and matching), although the actual examples used as more fitting to Bloodsucker.

Much like with the Chav Powers, some of the Powers just add growing bonuses, while others have differing effects at different levels. For instance, Poinging 1 allows Bloodsuckers to spend 1 Juice to overcome fatigue. Poinging 2 can provide Diplomacy bonuses and Poinging 3 can make them completely immune to mind controlling effects, ESPECIALLY if it were going to break their book.

On Merits and Flaws, I noticed more Bloodsucker Unique Flaws than I did Merits, such as Cannot Eat (you can't hold down anything but blood) and Classic Schtick (like not being able to enter a house uninvited, or being repulsed by garlic).

The Background chapter breaks down Bloodsuckers and their society. Even among the Cliques, there is no One True Way for Bloodsuckers to act...although it is noted that many of them try to adopt either the same cynicism or act ticked at the world, when really, they're just like you and I. Similarly, it is noted that Bloodsuckers often call themselves Pagans and Satanists, but it's usually for attention. We also get the full treatment of Angst and the Table of Sins, like Refusing to Drink Human Blood, thinking Happy Thoughts or gravely insulting the goth scene. The chapter ends with the 20 questions questionnaire, as well as common weapons and equipment.

The Magic(k) spells have some similarities with Chav's Voodoo, although there are some Bloodsucker specific spells like Juicebox, which allows Crowleys to get blood from non-standard sources, Sunscreen 5000 holds off even the morning rays and Overdone Stake is a protection spell that causes stakes to break when used against the Bloodsucker.

The Combat chapter hits the standards, but also delves into vulnerabilities to fire, sunlight and states, as well as a unique state Bloodsuckers can reach: Moping. Lastly, there is Turning, which is pretty standard: Bloodsuckers drain a victim, and then give them Juice.

Bloodsucker Society is set up with a pseudo-royalty, with Kings and Queens lording over each city, Lords and Ladies in charge of the Cliques, Bitches as the "official gossips" and so on. Bloodsuckers also gather into "Murders" which, coincidentally, coincides with however many characters you have in your roleplaying group.

The Shadow World chapter talks about Bloodsuckers around the world. It is worth noting that they are largely non-present in India or the Middle East.

The Antagonists chapter includes the Sparklers, which are Bloodsuckers that...well..guess. Yes, they are an unabashed rip on Twilight vampires. From there, this chapter is almost identical to the Antagonists chapter from Chav. In the PDF I have, there is a "naughty teacher" art piece  right before the Sparklers that covers up some text. I have no idea if that has since been corrected or not.

The campaign chapter offers 20 plot seeds, like the Bitches pushing a Freak into a TV makeover, or the town running out of clove cigarettes.

The book ends with an appendix covering vehicles and chases, plus a character sheet and index.

WHAT WORKS: Well, I get the humor here more than I do in Chav, if only because I'm a bit more familiar with goth types than hip-hop thugs. Despite not being a Vampire fan, I can still make an almost one-for-one comparison to the Clans. The Shadow World games are completely compatible, avoiding the obnoxious issues that old World of Darkness players faced when trying to mix their games.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: Well, there was that weird issues with the art piece covering text in the Antagonists chapter. However, and if I had reviewed Bloodsucker before Chav, this would be reversed: I get using the same Skills and such, that just makes sense in the context of having the games playable together. Even with some of the Powers and Merits being the same thing sense reinventing the wheel if it already works. The problem is that there are even large sections of fluff that are just cut and pasted from one book to the other, with specific terms changed. Chavs in America and Bloodsuckers in America have the same basic description, for instance, and there's even at least one of the plot seeds from Campaign chapters that is a word for word lift (the Dead Boy in the arcade tournament that I mentioned in the Chav review).

CONCLUSION: On its own merits, Bloodsucker's a great skewering of the vampire groupie fandom, and the perception of vampires in general. I still prefer WizKid over the other two if I had to just pick one, if only because it models the whole Harry Potter thing so well (if you tone down the hard-R rating). Chav and Bloodsucker, unfortunately, cover a lot of the same ground, both mechanically and in the fluff, and I have a hard time recommending someone pick up one if they have the other. Shameless cash grabs are cool (like omitting Bloodsuckers and Chavs from each other's books, as well as WizKid to tempt you to buy them all)...but the copy and paste was a too far.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tommy's Take on Chav: The Knifing

Disclaimer: As I begin my first review of Postmortem week, please be advised that I did use a tad saltier language than I normally do in my reviews. It seemed...appropriate, somehow.

If I hadn't watched Harry Brown on Netflix recently, I don't know if I would have had a real world context for a "Chav". Chav the Knifing is the second full game in the Shadow World line (yes, I'm going in reverse...sue me). It is a rather odd little game about street toughs who gain special powers from the Bus Stop God Chavthulhu (although they don't realize it).

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Chav uses the XPress system, which I detailed in my WizKid review last month, and is part of the greater Shadow World universe with Bloodsucker and WizKid, but is also a standalone game in its own right, not requiring the other two to play. Chav does also have a supplement out now: The Call of Chavthulhu.

As part of the "Materials you need in order to play", they recommend hip-hop music, and playing Chav in a public place...which would require me to be listening to hip-hop music in a public place, and isn't likely to happen.

The Character Creation chapter uses a very similar point buy as WizKid does, although instead of Houses, you have Credoz and Talentz. Oh, and you also need a Schtick which can be easily referenced for humor (speech impediments, being fat, dressing in clothes way too small, etc.). Anywho, Credoz are basically the crap you do that defines you. Chemistz make drugs, Hoodiez are the thugs, Muppetz are crazy daredevils, Pikeyz are kleptos, Slagz are whores, Walliez are poseurs, Wiggaz are a step up from Walliez, and Yardiez are the real, true shit. There are ten Talentz, with everyone getting Chav Sight, which lets you identify supernatural creatures. Brapp makes you a better gunman. Chav Speed, Chav Strength and Chav Toughness should be fairly self explanatory. Cloud is kinda like a limited invisibility. Musk lets you manipulate the opposite sex. Parkour lets you do crazy stunts. Slash is kinda like Brapp, but for knives, and Voodoo gets used a lot with drugs. Chavs are also vulnerable to Corruption, which is Bad.

The Credoz have the White Wolf Clan/Tribe/etc feuds/relationships with each other, detailed on each Credo's page. I did like how the Chemistz seem to get along with everyone well enough, even if the others are not quite as sold on them.

Chapter Two gets into the rules, and they are largely similar to WizKid, although they diverge when it comes to powers. Rather than the four types of magic(k), Chavs have Bile which power their abilities, and regain Bile in some very Chav-specific ways, like listening to hip-hop and hanging out at bus stops. The system itself is an interesting dice pool: Your appropriate skill sets the Target Number, and you roll a number of six sided dice equal to your attribute, re-rolling anything that hits the target number.

Chapter Three brings us the Skills chapter (what, no z?), which seems to cover the same 40 skills as WizKid, although it does use different examples. Brawl, Demolitions, Art (hey, you gotta have some skill when painting your tags, right?), Melee (which is like Brawl, but with weapons), and even Spellcasting.

Many of the Merits and Flaws are unique to the game, however, like Benefit Baby. That is, you have a kid that you get money for. Other Merits include Voodoo Thing (an item infused with Voodoo power), Looming (ya big freak), and O.C. (Original Chav, not a Fox Teen Dramedy). Flaws like Cliff Notes Satanist (you say you're a Satanist, but you're really talking out of your butt), Batty Boy (Chavs are homophobic, and you're the math), Ganja Induced Laziness (you smoke too much weed, basically), Furry (I'm not explaining this one if you don't know what it means already) and Weekend Warrior (you hold down a respectable job during the week, you're just a douchebag thug With Powerz on the weekends).

Money is handled by the Pay Scale Merit/Flaw, and a handy chart is given for making your own.

The Talentz Chapter lays out the Talentz in detail (each one scales up to three levels). Many of them just provide extra bonuses (like Brapp), but others such as Parkour let you do crazier shit the higher you go...(at the highest level, you can flip over your opponent and attack at the same time).

The Background Chapter is the important stuff about Chavs and their culture, such as how the Crew is sacred to them. It also details the Corruption system, and its "Sins". I say "Sins" because the level 1 Sin is Snitching...the level 10 Sin is refusing to commit an act of gross perversity. Yes...if your Chav is pulled towards the light, the Crew turns on them and you lose your character. It's THAT kind of game.

The rest of the chapter includes a 20 question questionnaire and the equipment section, covering various weapons and accessories.

The Voodoo Chapter is awesome. First off, it is partially based on your ability to bullshit. Chavs are naturally superstitious, and Chemistz play off of this. Level 1 Voodoo includes Minty Fresh Breath, powering an Ouija Board and covering their conversation in gibberish that only spellcasters can understand. Level 2 Voodoo includes a Theatrical Vanishing Act, Telepathy and making a Zombie (so, er, kind of a step up). Finally, Level 3 allows for out of body experiences, stitching body parts together to make a composite zombie and mesmerizing people.

For the Combat chapter, I am blatantly copy and pasting my explanation from my WizKid review: Initiative is a set number, derived from combining Speed and Perception. Rather than Hit Points, characters have Wound Levels that, unfortunately, look like a bad parody of wounds in the Storyteller system.

It is worth noting two things, however: Chavs can expend Bile to absorb damage, and they take extra damage from anything older than 70 years old, which helps explain how Michael Caine kicked so much ass in Harry Brown...which, hilariously, was referenced as the example in the book

The next chapter details just how Chav Society breaks down. Crews are ran by Bosses, but each Credo also has a Main Man, who may or may not be a Boss as well. Chavs can also call a Ruckus in very serious situations, where they name a Massive Boss. Two Cred systems are given in this chapter, one for the Crew and one for the individuals.

The Shadow World chapter shakes the idea that a despised, hip hop appreciating underclass is uniquely British, providing examples from around the world. Apparently American Chavs are REALLY full of themselves, and the Chavs in the Middle East may or may be heavily influencing radical Islam.

The Opposition Chapter includes a nice range of satirical antagonists, such as Bible Bashers (because Bible Thumpers aren't strong enough, I suppose), Dead Kids, Dogboys and Wizkids (which, of course, are covered in their own book). If you want Bloodsuckers, though, they are covered in their own book line, one of which I will be reviewing tomorrow.

The Campaign chapter is really more of "No, seriously, you're supposed to play this game", and includes 20 plots to use (like a Ruckus being called because Crews are disappearing, an arcade is holding a beat-em-'up tournament (but an obsessivr Dead Kid is sure to win), and hoodies are banned at a local college!

The appendix includes vehicle rules that seem a bit more at home here than in WizKid, a nice looking character sheet and an index.

WHAT WORKS: Well, the writing is top notch, as usual. Underneath the gags, jokes and cheapshots, there is a perfectly playable game here. Although the art style was very similar to the WizKid art, it didn't bother me as much here, for some reason. Also, I am really glad I watched Harry Brown before I read this. I love the BS factor of the Voodoo.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: I don't know why, may just be personal preference, but the game just doesn't work as well to me as WizKid does...although the fiction is a tad less on the porno-lite side. The game still, at points, seems to be a bit much for a comedy game, with the bloated amount of Health Boxes and so on. I am pretty sure that the Credoz, while cool, are not balanced, for those worried about such things...(especially comparing Walliez to Yardiez.).

CONCLUSION: While the game and writing are, in many ways, as good as or better than Wizkid, I do prefer Wizkid a bit more. However, if you ever wanted to play magic(k)-powered street thugs, this is a pretty spot-on game for that. I won't say the material is for a MATURE audience, exactly, but I will say it's for an ADULT audience, and unlike Wizkid, their shameless cash grab in this book only requires you to buy Bloodsucker to get everything you need since it pre-dated Wizkid. Great product, if slightly less inspiring than WizKid.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Some End of the Week News

RPGNow Wants To Know About Your Character

I know, right? Well, RPGNow is holding a big honkin' contest with some great prizes for the person that not only impresses the judges, but the voting public. Click on through to check it out.

Pinnacle Gets Into The EBook Business

Pinnacle Entertainment, makers of Savage Worlds, recently announced that they are getting into the eBook business, with fiction lines based on their game worlds, such as 50 Fathoms and Deadlands. They followed that up by blocking my e-mails and phone calls so I couldn't bug them for work.

They were right to do so.

I'm excited about you may recall, I purchased a Nook last year, and ePub is being supported by Pinnacle's new publishing efforts.

War of the Dead Chapter Three Goes On Sale 6/13/11

Daring Entertainment has made the release date official. I am particularly excited about this, because this is my first professional RPG gig (for those who missed the announcement, I was brought on as the editor) and I am gleefully enjoying the twists as turns as much as I know you will. Hurry up and take advantage of those pre-order deals, though...they are a freaking steal.

Next Week, Postmortem Studios Takes Over The Blog

Well, not exactly...but I have reviews lined up for four of Postmortem Studios' games: Chav the Knifing, Bloodsucker the Angst, Tough Justice and Agents of S.W.I.N.G...and I'm planning an e-mail interview with Postmortem Head Honcho James "Grim" Desborough. I'm hoping to have a couple of other reviews in place over the weekend.

Caladon Falls Fundraiser Is Still Going On

Caladon Falls, which I hope to be running online very soon, is getting closer to the end of its fundraiser period, and still has a deficit to make up. Really, if you like Savage Worlds and fantasy at all, I STRONGLY encourage you to chip in. It's not like you don't get anything for it, and it's a tremendous book.

The Part-Time Gods Kickstarter Just Keeps Going

Third Eye Games' Part-Time Gods Kickstarter started strong and just will not stop. Indeed, with 24 days left to go, they have raised more than twice their goal and rising.

Everything's Coming Up Aces

On a personal note, I just landed a new job that I start at the end of the month, and things are falling in place for my Hellrazer webcomic with the amazing Johnnie Johnson. We hope to be in full-swing with it by summer. One way or another, I will have something special lined up for Halloween this year for Savage Worlds fans...I am looking into a commercial release, but am skeptical about being able to meet Pinnacle's licensing requirements...either way, I'm prepping a Savage Worlds horror release that will be available by mid-October, one way or another.

Thanks for reading!

Tommy's Take on The Patriot Incident

The third module for Terror Network is their most recent release, The Patriot Incident. It is not tied into the previous two modules, instead acting entirely standalone. It also features a radical departure from the Muslim terrorist group found in the first two modules, with the FBI now tackling pseudo-Christian anti-government extremists.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Designed for the Terror Network RPG, The Patriot Incident assumes that you own a copy of the core rulebook. It is not currently included in the RPGNow Terror Network Bundle, nor is it presently in print, though the PDF is available for $4.99 at RPGNow.

Despite the differences from the previous modules, this one does follow the same basic format. First, we get the Introduction Chapter, which lays out the relevant backstory on the Sovereign Nation and their leader, as well as their efforts to launch a Racial Holy War that will bring about the Second Coming.

This mission is structured with a timeline, and the agents only have a 12 hour period (on Halloween!) in which to stop the plots (yes, plural) being initiated by the Sovereign Nation. This chapter also provides a good deal of information (including web resources one can use for further research) on Boston (the setting for the mission), a breakdown of the key clues in the investigation as well as a flowchart that can help the GM track where the likely clues unearthed in each location will lead.

Chapter Two is the nitty gritty, diving into the locations themselves, from flavor text to the NPCs at each location to what can be learned and how the Agents can learn it. The module boasts over twenty locations throughout Massachuessets, from Boston to Worcester to Salem and some smaller cities that I admit I haven't heard of. There are optional false leads and events that can be peppered in if things are going too smoothly (my favorite is a carjacking in one of the rougher areas...and yes, I mean the FBI Agents getting carjacked). Honestly, with the sheer amount of ground needing coverage I would be surprised if the Agents need too much extra thrown in their path, but having the extra material on-hand isn't a bad thing.

Chapter Three covers the NPCs (19 of them), with game stats where relevant (the PCs probably aren't getting into a shootout with the Governor, so no statblock there). Each NPC is given a name and description, as well as a list of what they know, how to get it from them, that sort of thing. This even includes a murder victim who is dead when the module begins (his write-up is shorter than most for this reason).

Chapter Four lays out the ending conditions. Like previous Terror Network modules, there is no one set ending. Bedrock Games makes no assumptions that the PCs will or won't succeed at any given task in the mission. Fail to stop the Sovereign Nation in that 12 hour window? Well, hunt them down after the fact. Moreso than the previous modules, this one provides more consequences for failure (or breaches of protocol), which can include causing the press to turn on the FBI or Agents getting fired or both.

Chapter Five provides a number of handouts, including e-mails, receipts and so on.

Finally, the Appendix reprints the Investigation flowchart as well as providing the relevant maps and NPC stats.

WHAT WORKS: The largest Terror Network module to date, it is also noteworthy for featuring a terrorist group that isn't Muslim jihadists. The fact is, dangerous ideological extremists do take more than one form, and Terror Network addresses that here.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: I caught a few editing issues...some buried in text and a couple in headers (which makes them far more noticeable, unfortunately). My primary concern with the adventure is that the time limit almost seems too harsh, with all of the travel, the due process of getting warrants for various situations, etc., that it has me thinking the deck might be too stacked against the PCs, but it is hard to say for sure without actually running the module.

CONCLUSION: It can be easy for a company to fall into the trap of doing one thing over and over, even if they do that one thing well. Bedrock Games follows a familiar formula with their modules, but still manages to show the variety available in the counterterrorism genre. If anything, I would like to see a little tighter editing and a little more variety in the locations used (Boston showed up both here and in the mission included in the corebook, justified due to the game's creator being based there)...but The Patriot Incident is another great addition to the Terror Network line.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tommy's Take on Operation Hydra Den

As part two of our week of Bedrock Games Terror Network modules, here is Operation Hydra Den. Spinning out of events of the Operation Hydra module, Operation Hydra Den follows Al Mahara back home to the Middle East, to at least take out key players, if not take the whole operation down.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: First, this is a module for Terror Network, so you should have that in order to get the full use out of the module. Second, this is designed as a sequel to Operation Hydra, though it is worth mentioning that you can use either "Hydra" module independent of the other with minimal effort. Don't want to play through Operation Hydra and maybe blow up chunks of Dallas? That's fine...handwave some other atrocity by Al Mahara and use that as the rationale for sending the PCs to the Middle East. Finally, the module is for sale in PDF format for $4.99 (of in the Terror Network bundle) and in print at Studio 2 Publishing. It is fully bookmarked and such, with the interiors being black and white.

Chapter One lays out all of the essential information: Basically, two Al Mahara cells operating out of different towns in Saudi Arabia are mining uranium in hopes of acquiring WMDs (which would be Bad). So the CIA have launched this mission (you do have the option of using the same FBI characters from the Operation Hydra module, although this is discouraged due to them possibly lacking the necessary skillsets), under the noses of the Saudis in order to stop this operation. That means that the PCs have to infiltrate and stop Al Mahara as well as avoid the Saudi authorities, so as to not cause a diplomatic nightmare.

In addition, this chapter also provides background on Saudi Arabia, as well as additional background on Al Mahara and the details of their current plot. Finally, an in-character briefing for the Agents as they arrive for the mission, as well as what they specifically have available to them in the beginning (both in regards to material possessions as well as contacts).

Given that there are two towns they need to infiltrate, two of the chapters are spent focusing on each town, what the PCs may find there and so on. In a nice touch, the chapter for the mining operation lies directly between the chapters on the two villages...just as the mine itself lies between the two villages. Given that they have to choose between going to one town first or the other, each location also has a section detailing what the PCs find at a given place if they went to the other town first. For instance, the safehouse in Khuddah is abandoned by the time the PCs get there if they went to Al Arif first. As with the previous module, each location details the NPCs found there, the information that can be attained and so in, and there should be something guiding the PCs from place to place as long as they are doing their jobs.

Chapter five explains how the module wraps up, and defines success or failure based on just how the PCs performed in each town, as well as the encounter at the mines in between. All of the PCs dying, for instance, is a Very Bad Thing. It is also possible for the PCs to get their primary target but lose their secondary target, which can come back to haunt them later.

Chapter six details the relevant NPCs, including how they are likely to respond to interactions with the PCs (such as what they may give up under interrogation), but also provides both a Players and GMs map of each relevant location.

WHAT WORKS: As always, a painstaking amount of research has gone into the module, and again, success or failure is left up to the PCs (ranging from total success to partial successes to utter failure). One of the most common problems with modules (indeed, most written adventures, store bought or homemade) is that they tend to fall apart once the players make contact with them. Hydra Den does its best to avoid that by combining the "Government Agents" approach with the sandbox format and site descriptions that cover what happens when either town is approached first (by necessity, the Mine event should always happen in the middle, regardless).

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: The editing didn't appear to be quite as tight on this one as it did Operation Hydra. One of the player's maps was mislabeled as a GM's map, and I caught the odd typo in the text.

CONCLUSION: I couldn't tell you why, exactly, but I didn't like this adventure quite as much as Operation Hydra. Not saying it's a bad product, far from it, I just think something in Hydra worked better. Maybe I'm more partial to the FBI than I am the CIA. Maybe it was the whole "on American soil" thing. I don't think it was the minor editing issues, but who knows? That said, I do think Bedrock Games nailed another great product with this, showing how you can release modules that are ostensibly connected, but can easily be ran separately. I also like the realistic "sense of scale" for this mission: You don't swoop in and wipe out a major terrorist cell in one mission, and that's not what they were trying to accomplish here. In the final analysis, I would say a half a step down from Operation Hydra, but still a great investment for anyone with interest in the modern espionage genre.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Tommy's Take on Operation Hydra

My goal is to spend the rest of the week reviewing modules for the Terror Network RPG, starting with Operation Hydra. In a nutshell, Terror Network is an RPG designed to emulate a relatively realistic approach to the War on Terror, in all its forms. You can read my review of the rulebook right here.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Operation Hydra is designed to be played either standalone, or as the first module in a campaign against terrorist group Al Mahara. You can get it in PDF format at RPGNow, or in print through Studio 2 Publishing. The former will run you $5.99, while the latter is $14.99...or, since it requires Terror Network to play, you can get the whole line in a bundle for $21.96. The book is 59 pages in black and white.

Essentially, the adventure is a timed sandbox adventure. The PCs are anti-terror agents (it is recommended that they be FBI, but the option is presented for them to be a joint task force), who catches wind of an Al Mahara plot targeting Dallas, Texas. The Agents are then turned loose to do everything in their means and jurisdiction to stop the terror plot.

Chapter One provides a detailed summary of the background of Al Mahara, as well as the events of the module and how they are likely to play out. Also included is a timeline of the events and how they will happen barring PC interference. I try to play light-handed with spoilers on modules, so I will say that the PCs are brought in when they catch wind of a kidnapping plot against a software engineer who works for the Dallas Federal Reserve, and that things go to crap pretty much when the PCs get involved, leading to a race against time.

Chapter Two lays out the various events and locations, starting with a keyed map of Dallas. Each entry gets descriptive text, what (if anything) initially happens on arrival, any relevant NPCs, what might turn up in the course of the investigation (and how the PCs can attain the information), and NPCs likely to be present (and how they are likely to react) and finally any events keyed to the location.

While the PCs can tackle many of the locations in any order, there are commonly clues that lead from one place to the next, so thorough agents shouldn't wind up left in the dark here.

Chapter Three (Suspects and Witnesses) lays out the NPCs the PCs are likely to interact with, including short descriptions of them and how they are likely to react (including relevant game information, such as how to get important information from given suspects and witnesses, from Reasoning with them to Interrogating them as needed).

Chapter Four is the endgame for the module, which can end a few different ways, including with brutal devastation unleashed on Dallas by Al Mahara. The way the adventure is written, the PCs are doing more than just getting to the end, what they do actually matters in the endgame, affecting not only WHAT happens, but how difficult the endgame is.

The module concludes with relevant NPC stats, as well as a couple of handouts.

What Works: I love the Bedrock Games approach to adventures, more often than not just setting up a scenario, usually with a timeline, and letting the PCs work it out for good or for ill. The way this module works, it ties into the sequel (Operation Hydra Den) in which Agents take the fight to Al Mahara on their home soil, regardless of success or failure on the PCs' part (although failure will likely make the players want to take the fight to Al Mahara even more). The module itself allows for the PCs to have plenty to do, from hacking to interrogating, to shoot-outs and chase scenes, and even a bone-chilling encounter with a pitbull (...maybe).

What Doesn't Work: For better or for worse, Bedrock Games is more Substance than Style (reminding me a lot of Precis Intermedia Games in that regard). None of their stuff looks bad, but I think it tends to get overlooked because they spend their time, energy and money on research and writing, and not on their art budget. Personally, I don't mind that, but it baffles me how every person out there who waxes nostalgic for games like Top Secret hasn't at least given Terror Network a once over.

Conclusion: Another stellar release by Bedrock Games. While it allows for the very real possibility of a downer ending, said ending (and the existence of its follow up module) is a textbook case in how the PCs can "lose", and the show can go on. Most importantly, the module is written with the flexibility in mind that success or failure - at any step - is up to the PCs, their choices, and their action. With any luck, Hydra Den will fulfill the promise of its predecessor.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tommy's Take on Arcane Kingdoms, IZ: The Package and Weird West


Arcane Kingdoms: Seven Realms Beyond The Horizon is a budget-priced, system neutral fantasy supplement by Sword's Edge Publishing with seven kingdoms that are meant to be placed as far away lands in your fantasy game. Each kingdom lists the capital, population, form of government, imports, exports, general description, life and society, important sites, regional history and "FX Campaign", which amounts to suggestions for nonhuman races that can be used to populate the kingdoms (thematically).

The Free City of Argopolis is an incredibly civilized nation that not only utilizes a three branch system of government, but is gaining some notoriety as the inventors of the wordpress, leading - of course - to the mass production of books. The FX notes do point out that it is likely that nonhumans in Argopolis would still wind up in ghettos and the like, casting a darker note on the enlightened society.

On the surface (no pun intended), you read "The Underneath" and you think "Oh, it's The Underdark...again". Not so...think something closer to the Morlocks from the X-Men comics. This is a forgotten society of vagrants, criminals and nonhumans who live just below the surface. It could make for a very interesting juxtaposition in any civilized city that lacks the necessary police force to enforce order below. The FX section is really interesting as it suggests that kobolds could be the driving force in The Underneath, which would be pretty shocking in most fantasy games.

The Commune of Katar Val only consists of about 1,200 people, and are constructed as a true democracy. In a "history is written by the winners" kinda thing, they managed to defeat rampaging bandits and marauders, and turned them into slave labor for their assaults. Elves are recommended as the primary race, with a few suggestions for the marauders, my favorite being trolls. Imagine being a mostly human group finding an Elven commune using Troll slave labor.

The Zeharis Protectorate is the most powerful and militarized realm presented thus far. A very structured, class based society. Again, the FX Campaign notes really takes this entry to the next level, suggesting dwarves as the primary race in the Protectorate, with the smaller realms under their protection being gnomes, halflings or even humans.

The Virikar Domains are a thinly veiled collection of viking nations with a few additional political trappings. Probably my least favorite thus far, but that has more to do with how much I like the other entries than anything else.

The Thanag Tribes of the Sahelli Steppes is a tribal formation of hunter-gatherers ruled by the Tribal Elders (who are usually the more useful, not necessarily the oldest). They have harsh punishments for those who cross the tribes.

The Lordok Nation is a loosely organized alliance of bandit tribes. The author, who had remained race neutral as well as system neutral throughout this book so far, gives his intentions away here by referring to them as goblins (which he notes is the original concept). In and of themselves, the concept isn't anything's the backstory, where The Lordok Nation is said to have been a dominant empire ran by a powerful king that no other society now acknowledges even existed is the real interesting hook here.

I caught a couple of minor editing issues, which is really impressive as there is no editor listed. For $2, this is a really good idea mine, as long as you don't mind that there is no art in the book (which means that the PDF is ALL text, so it's not just padded out), and a few of these entries are easily adapted into even a published campaign (like The Underneath). Probably the one that works the least, conceptually, is the Zeharis Protectorate, if only because it came into power because of being a major spice exporter, so for no one to know about them seems a little...odd.

Great value for the price.


The Package is a six page adventure (two pages are NPC stats, but there is little art, so it is almost all text) for Interface Zero that was released by Gun Metal Games late last year. As the name implies, it's pretty much an errand job for a group of PCs, easy cash for the delivery of a basic package. Not surprisingly, a mix-up between the PCs and another courier complicates matters...with the PCs winding up in possession of some very sensitive material, and thus targeted by some Very Bad Guys.

On one hand, ensuring that the PCs fall prey to the hook may require a bit of GM fiat, the adventure definitely makes up for it by leaving the resolution entirely in the hands of the PCs, giving them multiple options in which to resolve the situation. A good adventure (with an odd editing issue, such as one line towards the end that disappears into abrupt punctuation) that sets up the situation and lets the PCs do what they will. Great stuff, especially for the price.


So I bought the Weird West RPG out of morbid curiosity, because it seemed awfully familiar. Before I had a chance to crack into it, I heard some good word of mouth and such, so I wasn't sure what to expect.

I like the Weird West genre...obviously, being a huge Deadlands fan and all. Weird West is pretty rules-light (the PDF is 8 pages, and since one page is a big chart and another is the cover, it's really only 6), and only running $1. You have four Attributes (Fighting, Grit, Magic and Skill) and 4 points to divide among them), with a minimum of 1 in Grit (and no other restrictions). Level advancement is decided whenever the group decides, with PCs getting 1 point of Grit per level, and the rest of Attribute advancement decided by Path (Adventure, Gifted, Fighter and Magician).

They can get special abilities for each point of Magic, such as Shaolin Monk or Fastest Gun in the West. The book covers a number of basic weapons, damage for which is capped based on Path. There are no monsters or generic statblocks included, and the game manages to make use of everything from a d2 to a d10 as well as d20 (no d12 love).

There's a decent skeleton of a very lite system here, and the promise of more to come, and I won't compare it to Deadlands (despite the genre), but I will say that I think it falls short next to Resolute in both content and presentation, which is pretty much the standard bearer for the "Budget Priced" RPGs.