Monday, 2 May 2016

Frostgrave, and why it's a fantastic game and setting

Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City by Joseph A. McCullough, Dmitry Burmak, 9781472805041The game Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City is one of my favourite games. I'm not a huge tabletop wargamer - in fact, I haven't played a wargame for a long time, as RPGs are my bag - but this is one of the very few wargames that I've played that has left a lasting impression on me.

First of all, it's just so accessible. It's quick and easy to learn, you don't need hours to play it and with just ten figures per side you can set up a warband and be ready to go with very little expenditure. If you've already got a bunch of 28mm fantasy or medieval miniatures from other games then you're pretty much ready to go. Small groups means a lot less time collecting and painting, and just getting on with the game.

The game also has a brilliant, enigmatic setting that's great for a roleplaying campaign. This is from the 'Frostgrave – Tales of the Frozen City' short story collection blurb:

"Long ago, the great city of Felstad sat at the centre of a magical empire. Its towering spires, labyrinthine catacombs and immense libraries were the wonder of the age, and potions, scrolls and mystical items of all descriptions poured from its workshops. 

Then, one cataclysmic night, a mistake was made. In some lofty tower or dark chamber, a foolish wizard unleashed a magic too powerful to control. A storm rose up, an epic blizzard that swallowed the city whole, burying it deep and leaving the empire as nothing more than a vast, frozen wasteland. The empire shattered, and the magic of the world faded. As the centuries came and went, Felstad passed from history to legend and on into myth. Only a few wizards, clinging to the last remnants of magical knowledge, still believed that the lost city had ever actually existed. But their faith was rewarded.

After a thousand years, the fell winter has passed. The snows have receded, and Felstad has been uncovered. Its buildings lie in ruins, overrun by undead creatures and magical constructs, the legacy of the empire's experiments. It is an evil, dangerous place. To the few hardy souls who inhabit the nearby villages, the city has acquired a new name, ‘Frostgrave', and it is shunned by all right-thinking people. For those who seek power and riches, however, it is an unparalleled opportunity, a deadly maze concealing secrets of knowledge long forgotten..."

How awesome is that? How is that not screaming out for some incredible dungeon-delving, ruin-searching, crazy madcap magical gonzo insane exploration escapades? The actual Frostgrave game and system can be easily converted into a quick and easy RPG, so that you can game your way through the city and still have those wargame sessions you love so much. I added a basic skill roll, which is simply roll 1D20 and beat a target number; easy 5, average 10, difficult 15, impossible 20. That's it - instant roleplaying game.

The enigmatic setting is also open to interpretation, as the author Joseph A. McCullough has purposefully left the setting and history vague. This means you can add all kinds of monsters, races and personalities and just go crazy with the city. High fantasy bad-guy blasting? No worries. Gritty medieval dungeon grinding? Take your best shot. Frostgrave welcomes all kinds of approaches, and there's almost nothing you can't do - the Frostgrave Facebook page is proof of that.

This a great game and a great place to adventure, and even though the wargame gives you a chance to create some real personalities and get attached to the magician you've created, it really deserves a dedicated roleplaying game to really get into the meat of the setting.



I've looked into it further, and to set myself up with the game from scratch (based on North Star Military Figures, who supply the official miniatures and stuff) it would cost:

£14.99 for the rulebook
£6.00 for a wizard and an apprentice
£20.00 for a box of 20 modifiable soldiers
£8.99 for a modelling equipment starter set
£2.00 per pot of paint (for argument's sake, let's say I'd need 5 pots for a decent mix, so that's £10.00)
£3.00 for a tape measure
£2.50 for s selection of D20s

So, that's £65.48 to not only get started in the game, but stay involved for a very long time without having to make constant purchases.

Of course, the cracking thing is that I've already got 28mm miniatures, dice and a tape measure, so even to dabble in the game will only cost me the rulebook.

Other than the game and setting, I really see the appeal of this!

Hints & Tips - THREAT ASSESSMENT

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on www.rpg.net and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

How to make your bad guys more realistic.

The last thing you want is to make your chief NPC protagonist two-dimensional, for your players to turn round and say 'well, that's another power crazy megalomaniac dealt with - who’s next?'

The difficult question is how can the players find out about the past of the bad guy? Unless they knew the nasty before they went bad, which can be a brilliant plot hook, the players don't have many chances to get to know them, what with dodging their blasters and bombs.

PC's turning bad is a great idea, and roleplaying games are brilliant for this. If or when a player character turns to evil, the character sheet can be handed over to the GM and then played as an evil NPC. Isn't that a great idea? The character that the players have been adventuring with and getting to know over the past few sessions is now one of the opposite side, adding a fresh new perspective to the game. Maybe the story will follow the same lines as the Star Wars movie Return Of The Jedi, with the PC's trying to convert the evil NPC back to the good side. Talk about high drama. If the players really take to the story well, then the roleplaying opportunities are enormous. This need not only apply to that particular genre. Lets say a player has gotten tired of playing a particular PC, and wishes to retire them or have them killed in a glorious end battle. Why get rid of the character when they can suit a better purpose as an NPC, an evil one at that? This way, the personality of the character has already been defined by the player who controlled it, and if the referee plays that character with the same traits, but with a little more hint of nastiness, the players will respond in a much more eager manner than if they were up against another NPC nasty.

Alternatively, and easier to pull off, the bad guy can be an old friend of the PC's, an NPC who turned nasty, as simple as that. A good plot twist is to have the NPC act like a really good friend to the characters for many sessions, and then the final twist is to find that the NPC is the chief behind all the problems the PC's have been investigating, and didn't want to directly hurt the PC's because he really did get on with them. Nice twist, huh? Bad guys, or at least the characters on the opposite side, can suddenly take to new depths with this kind of personality input.

Why should the chief protagonist be evil? It's pretty much assumed that any NPC who tries to thwart the ultimate goal of the PC's is a nasty. It need not be that way. The NPC who is trying to stop the PC's from finding the sacred diamonds of Lutz, for example, may be doing so out of a religious or belief-driven motivation. Look at the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That group attacked the heroes straight away, and you immediately think that they are on the wrong side, but it turns out that all they are trying to do is protect the secret of the Holy Grail. Fair enough. They think they're doing the right thing, and maybe they are, but all it was, was a difference of opinion on what the goal of the story meant to each participant. Maybe you could generate that kind of opposition between the player characters. One could be out for the money, another for the glory, and yet another could be thinking 'maybe we should leave these diamonds of Lutz where they are'. It's quite simple to have that escalate into heavy in-party rivalries, but this should be stopped if it seems to be going too far. The main reason why a group plays together is to co-operate and perform as a team, anyway. Unless you’re paranoid.

The bad guy could even take the form of an animal. Yes, it can be done, and if it goes according to plan it can be quite effective. If it doesn't go as well as expected, then it could turn into a cheap re-hash of the Alien movies.

What am I talking about? Well, lets take Ridley Scott’s movie Alien as an example. The film was about an alien life form, which gets on board a spaceship and proceeds to eat the crew, moving and hunting as a predator and running circles around everyone. The creature killed in a nasty way and had a real dark, evil look to it. When it finally gets vaped, everyone cheers and the evil alien is defeated.

But, it wasn't necessarily evil. It wasn't necessarily malevolent. It did what came naturally to it, it fed and reproduced. That is the basic requirement of any life form (unless your playing a totally whacked-out game), and, if you want to look at it simply, the alien was doing what it did.

But that's not how you would see it if you were on the receiving end. This creature would be doing things that would abhor you, eat things that would make you feel sick, move around and kill in a fashion that would scare the hell out of you. Basically, you would think that what the creature was doing was evil. Evil if it was human, maybe, but we can't judge other life forms by our own standards, be they ones from outer space or ones we share our planet with.

Before I get too heavy, I'll get to the point of all this. The protagonist of a game could be such a creature. You can get a very entertaining game if you keep the players on their toes wondering what to do next. You see, they can't guess what a creature is going to do like they can guess the next move of an intelligent being, and that is what makes the game entertaining. They are continuously looking over their shoulders and watching each other's backs. It need not be done with an alien. You can get the same effect with a large predatory lizard, and an even more effective way is to have a swarm attack the PC's in the form insects or some other lifeform, making defeating them much more difficult. The point is, creatures have no qualms about doing what they do. Where the more intelligent bad guys would observe and calculate, the creature would get stuck in. Simple as that.

Well, I think that about wraps it up. I hope that this little piece has given you a few ideas on how to improve what threats the players will face. Remember- if you make notes about what your head bad guy is like, and stick to those traits, then it will make for a more believable NPC. Not only that, when you come to create a new protagonist, you can see what has come before and create an original one to keep the game fresh. Another key thing to remember- don't be too proud of the bad guy you create. Ultimately, they'll be defeated, and after all, you're not in contention with the players.

Of course, you don't let the players know that.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

RPG Review: Strongholds of Resistance

Published by Fantasy Flight Games

'Strongholds of Resistance provides thorough descriptions of several Rebel bases, Alliance Worlds, and the NPCs that your group of Rebels may encounter in these locations. It offers players three new species to craft characters from and a panoply of vehicles and gear to help characters carry out dangerous Rebel assignments. For Game Masters, it includes new modular encounters which can serve as single-session adventures or be easily integrated into your Age of Rebellion campaign.'

I like locations to game in and this book gives me those locations in spades, along with some new equipment, races, ships and encounters. If you're looking for a handbook to give your places new things to do, new places to see, and experience some of the key locations in the Rebellion such as Echo Base... well, you'll be launching strikes against the Empire from these fortified places before you know it, and after your operations you'll be looking forward to getting back 'home' to a meal and some R&R, and maybe a quick dip in a bacta tank.

The locations are my favourite section of the book by far. Not only do you get the worlds that have stood up against the tyranny of the Empire, you also get detailed Rebel bases to play with, which you can use as they are designed or adapt for your own use, renaming them and using them as templates for hidden fortresses across the galaxy. You get Polis Massa (espionage, starfighter support, and medical research), the Defiant Core (constructed out of a salvaged Star Destroyer from the Clone Wars), Tierfon (starfighter support) and, my all-time favourite, Echo Base on Hoth. The period that the book is set in means that Hoth is the central base of the Rebellion, so enjoy it... but don't get too attached.

There are several planets including Mon Cala (it's a bit damp there) and Sullust. Along with these worlds you get some new playable races, a Polis Massan, a Quarren, and a Verpine. The Verpine, and the Roche Asteroid field, are a favourite of mine as I remember with fondness reading about their adventures creating fighters at a secret base for the Rebellion, nearly thirty years ago now. Along with these new locations and races you also get new gear to utilise.

There's also some very interesting encounters to utilise. From fighting TIE fighters, to handling diplomatic negotiations, from fighting with the Sullustan resistance to destroying Imperial operations, each adventure will give you a game session or two each and are pretty good fun. There's everything a gaming group needs and there's something for everyone to do; battles, espionage and diplomacy will abound.

All in all this is a well laid out, informative and very atmospheric book and gamers looking to heighten that sense of Rebellion, of hiding in the stars as they fight against the evil Galactic Empire, will find this invaluable. As well as containing plenty of information about worlds and locations that will help to germinate seeds of adventure, the details in here will give you plenty of gaming hours interacting with both the strongholds and the denizens far beyond the adventures included.

Recommended.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

The SKETCH System

Many years ago, and the main reason why I came up with the name Farsight so that I could have a label to gather my creations under, I created a really stupidly simple RPG system called the SKETCH system, because it was a sketched out version of a larger system I wanted to create and the name kind of stuck. SKETCH isn't an acronym of anything- I just thought it looked cool in big capital letters.

I did some simple settings covering most genres, and even had a stab at creating some unofficial games using established settings (purely for fun and not for profit - I have to say that because I can't afford a solicitor) and I had some fun with it.

For ages now I've considered doing a second edition of the game, but it's so simple I can't see point. There are some things I'd like to change, but right now it serves it's purpose.

My horror version of the SKETCH system can be downloaded here - the other settings are at the website here and they can all be downloaded for free.


Sunday, 17 April 2016

Book Review - Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier

Steampunk SoldiersBy Philip Smith and Joseph A. McCullough
Illustrated by Mark Stacey

Published by Osprey Publishing

Available May 19th 2016

'Even as the discovery and exploitation of hephaestium helped bring the Civil War to its close in 1869, the arms race it engendered resulted in a cold war just as bitter and violent as the open hostilities had been. With neither side willing to rely solely upon the talents of their scientific establishments, saboteurs, double-agents, and assassins found ample employment. Against this backdrop of suspicion and fear, thousands of Americans - Northerners and Southerners alike - headed west. Some to escape the legacies of the war, some to find their own land, some for the lure of that great undiscovered strike of hephaestium that would make them rich, and some simply to escape the law. Ahead of these pioneers stood the native tribes, behind them followed the forces of two governments, while to the north and south, foreign powers watched closely for their own opportunities. 

This newly unearthed collection of the works of Miles Vandercroft fills a considerable gap in our knowledge of the travels of that remarkable individual, and also provides a fascinating guide to the costume and equipment of the forces active in the great drive westwards.'

Every time I come to a product such as this I always start with the same explanation of my exposure to steampunk; it isn't huge. I'm fully aware of steampunk and it's alternative take on history, and the way it blends technological innovation with the capabilities of the period - and maybe even throw in something exotic to help things along - but other than a couple of books and a few other smaller things that exposed me to this popular genre I've never really had any involvement in it. I do like it, but I've never truly delved into it.

I think one of the things that has kept me from it is the fact that nothing has ever really reached out of the pages and grabbed me, convinced me that I should explore it more. I've always enjoyed it but I've never really been encompassed by it, or really wanted to dedicate any time to it. I think, with all the other things that I'm passionate about that take up my time, it'd take something pretty spectacular to make me want more.

If I was sucked into this world it'd have to be something in the tabletop roleplaying arena and I think Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier may be the first book I've read to make me want to choose an applicable gaming system and run a series of adventures in an Old West steampunk setting.

I like the idea of the Old West, but as an Englishman I may have an overly romantic view of the period; that frontier mentality, danger on the borders, the politics of the country, the brutal law and the radical lawlessness... yes, incredibly inaccurate historically but I'm not looking for accuracy in a roleplaying game like this, I'm looking for adventure. Running a straightforward Western RPG may not be right up my street, but add steampunk contraptions, an alternative American history and a couple of glorious Alamo Fortified Suits... seriously, go to page 31 and I guarantee that as a gamer you'll want to stat that baby straight away. I could get some serious mileage out of it.

The book itself is a full-colour hardback at 96 pages, and is illustrated throughout. The book details the two governments of the country - The North (The Union) and The South (The Confederacy), The Disputed Territories where the native tribes remain, The Far North of Canada and Alaska, The Old South of Mexico, and The Manifest Destined - which to be fair, is where I'd set my games, right on the frontier.

Written as if Osprey Publishing are presenting these details as facts, each section has a brief introduction to explain the state of this particular part of the country and then there follows a series of illustrations that give us an example of an individual who lives there (and when I say lives there, I mean fights there) and it gives the role of that person, the role of the organisation they are involved in and what it is they do.

And it's really well done. The writing is crisp and needs only a page to explain what they are and what they do, and as you make your way through the book it slowly builds a much larger picture of the country, larger than the brief introduction was able to give. It gives some great background and reality to the alternative history that's been created and acts as a great sourcebook for anyone wanting to use the material for their games, be it creating something from scratch or using the setting for their existing steampunk campaign, Even if you're not intending to use it as a gaming resource, it's just a great read with some amazing illustrations that'd look great on the bookshelf. Steampunk enthusiasts and cosplayers will find lots of great images in here that will no doubt give them some inspiration for their next project.

The combination of atmospheric writing (the fact that straight away they deal with the history and the images as fact and not fiction adds so much depth) and great art (each image has a great dynamic and gives real character) makes Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier a great evening's read. It's not long at all, but I found myself revisiting it to check out certain images and backgrounds, and as a tabletop roleplayer I found a lot to help me into my first steampunk-themed game. Everybody likes a good western, and having the ability to add an Alamo Fortified Suit, a postman with an armoured dog, a Confederate trooper on a camel, flying natives, Banditos with flamethrowers and land Ironclads... I mean, come on, who's going to say no to that?

Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier is a great book that really makes you wish the west really was that wild.

Recommended.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Book Review: The Cthulhu Wars

By Kenneth Hite and Kennon Bauman

Published by Osprey Publishing

'From the Patriots' raid on the necromancer Joseph Curwen to the Special Forces' assault on Leng in 2007, this unique document reveals the secret and terrible struggle between the United States and the supernatural forces of Cthulhu. In this war, immortal cultists worship other-dimensional entities and plot to raise an army of the dead. Incomprehensible undersea intelligences infiltrate and colonize American seaports, and alien races lurk beneath the ice of Antarctica and high in the mountains of Afghanistan. It is only through constant vigilance and violence that the earth has survived. Also included are threat reports describing the indescribable - humanity's deadliest foes serving Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones. Strange times are upon us, the world is changing, and even death may die - but, until then, the war continues.'

At the moment I'm running a Call of Cthulhu (4th Edition) game for my local gaming club. It's set in the late 1920s and there's already been an arctic expedition, a brush with some Mi-Go and some zombified human constructs, a bit of a clash back at Arkham and a dead-but-not-dead incident on a train across the USA from Boston to San Francisco. Nobody's dead or insane yet, so they're either being incredibly good players or I've been an exceptionally bad GM.

As some of the players are new to the Cthulhu Mythos there has been a lot of questions about what it all means, and as I don't want to give too much away I'm building up to an incident where they can find out more by reading the report of a man who had done his own research, namely the Lovecraft story 'The Call Of Cthulhu'. Just by reading this story they should have a much better understanding of what is going on.

It was great fielding these questions, but one that came up was 'What do the government know?' which was a question I could not answer because they still had a lot of research and adventuring to do before they found that out, and mainly because I didn't really know myself.

So that got me asking the question; what do the government know about the cosmic horrors that plague the world? As if my mind had been read - as if the stars had aligned and the power of the Great Old Ones had ordained it to be - three days later a book landed on my doorstep, and this book was 'The Cthulhu Wars'.

Weird.

This 80-page colour softback book details the United State's struggle with dark forces from 1585 onwards. The fact that it's just from the point of view of the USA works for me, even though  realistically the conflict is world-wide, because the United States is always the starting point of my own Call of Cthulhu roleplaying campaigns; for me, Cthulhu is all about New England in the 1920s, so this is just fine.

This isn't a proper, fully-fledged sourcebook per se; you won't find stats or hints for any of the Cthulhu games be it RPG or boardgame, but what you have is an entertaining read that takes you from the very early records of the first settlers having issues with these monsters, through the better known mythos stories such as Innsmouth, through the use of nuclear weapons in 1962 (which is, in a word, epic) to more modern conflicts. The book is written as a document, intertwining fiction with historical incidents and figures, as if you've either just joined the ranks of the people fighting the danger and you've been given this book to orient yourself with the fight, or if you've received this to learn the horrifying truth from a conspiracy theorist.

It's also written as if Lovecrfaft wrote his stories not as macabre tales, but as memories of things that happened, and that he himself was privy to the truth. Indeed, the introduction by Kenneth Hite reads as if he has researched the book and fears for his life in doing so, and then this is followed by Kennon Bauman explaining how he's completing Kenneth's work as a tribute to the man. That's brilliant, and it adds a whole new level of reality to the book.

The artwork and images in the book support the text really well, from period images to eerily doctored photographs, to some fantastic art from Darren Tan that really helps sell the story. Even the 'Sources' section at the back of the book, which talks of where the information came from, helps with the overall atmosphere. It's a great read, and the suggested reading, games and fiction was helpful as it pushed me in the direction of some films I'd not considered before.

Ultimately, how useful was it? From a gaming perspective I can see it being quite useful but only for small pieces of background and inspiration across several campaigns in different ages. Right now I'm in the 1920s, and it gives me some idea of what was going on but, to be truthful, I have my original Lovecraft stories to give me the background and atmosphere I need. If I ever decide to run a game in the present day, during the Cold War or during World War Two, I can see this being really helpful, and it's already given me a couple of great ideas regarding special units in the ETO.

Overall, this is an entertaining book. It really tries to sell the reality of the war against the Mythos as fact and in this it succeeds very well. This would be a great addition to the collection of Lovecraft fans and gamers alike.

Recommended.

For the last twenty years Kenneth Hite has worked as a full-time writer and role-playing game designer, contributing to many famous games including GURPS, Hero System, Vampire: The Dark Ages, and Savage Worlds. He has also written or co-written numerous books on esoteric subjects such as Cthulhu 101 and Where the Deep Ones Are. 

Kennon C. Bauman is a professional analyst whose writings on weird history, forteana, conspiracy theories, and adventure gaming can be most frequently found at theIlluminerdy.com.

Born and raised in Malaysia, Darren Tan grew up drawing spaceships, dinosaurs and the stuff of his imagination, which was fuelled by movies and computer games. Inspired by these, he went on to study animation and later graduated as a Computer Animator from Sheridan College, Canada. After a brief stint in 3D animation, he decided to trade in polygons for a wacom tablet. Now he works as a digital concept artist at Imaginary Friends Studios and is enjoying getting paid for his hobby.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Interview: Ed Jowett of Shades of Vengeance

Shades of Vengeance LogoPlease welcome Ed Jowett, the man behind games company Shades of Vengeance. Ed took a bit of time out from his schedule - he's a bit busy at the moment with a Kickstarter on the go for his new game Era: Survival - to answer a few questions.

Hi there and welcome to Farsight Blogger! Perhaps you'd like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

First, I would like to say it is great to be here!

Hi! I'm Ed Jowett, Game Creator. I love Sci-Fi, games of all shapes and sizes and am a former software developer, now a project manager in my day job. By night, I develop games for Shades of Vengeance!

To date, I have created 4 games and produced several more, along with development assistance.

I tend to focus on creating my own universes because I particularly enjoy that aspect of game creation.

Tell us about your RPG history - what got you into the wonderful world of tabletop roleplaying?

The first RPG I ever played was Paranoia. 2 sessions later, I was GMing my first game of Paranoia!

I was totally hooked from the start - I am a very tactical gamer and I would create complicated plans about how to frame up the others and generally bluff my way past suspicion... and I found I was very good at it.

I began branching out into other games, mostly as a GM, and it was not long before I was called upon to help create a setting.

By that time, I was in my second year of University, and the one I attended runs a 24-hour game each year. The tradition is that a setting is created by the 5 or 6 GMs that rotate through those sessions (across usually about 4 player groups, so you get some rest). As the previous year had been a low fantasy game, it was quickly agreed that we would do Sci-Fi. The vague concept was "Firefly with aliens", and that's when I came forward with concepts for two alien races, the Eulutians and the Ximians (which would later evolve further and appear in Era: The Consortium).

That game went great and it firmed up the foundation - I was never going to stop being a roleplayer!

What is it about the tabletop RPG hobby that attracts you? What do you enjoy most when playing a game?

I like the freedom of choice which can only come from a human GM. Video game designers can't predict all of my crazy schemes any more than I can, and I love the opportunity to let loose with something that the GM had never considered as a possible solution to a problem.

I am very frequently in the GM chair, though, and when on that side of the table, I enjoy allowing people to experience the same - I will often create problems that I don't necessarily see a solution to and see whether the group can come up with a way out. It definitely keeps the players on their toes!

I don't think that video games will reach that kind of flexibility for some time, still, so I think that tabletop roleplaying games still provide a very unique experience.

What's your favourite game? What games that are out there at the moment float your boat?

This is going to sound self-serving, but I just love Era: The Consortium. We finished playtesting 2 years ago and I am still running two groups through 7+ hour long games at least once per month! I never run out of ideas in that Universe and the history really does give you both a solid foundation and flexibility. I would have to say that is my favourite game.

I will always have a special place in my heart for Paranoia, as well, because it got me started, but I find it less good for longer campaigns... as I think many do!

I have also played and particularly enjoyed World of Darkness (Malkavian for ever!), Edge of Empire and Firefly.

Tell us more about the Era roleplaying games; what was the inspiration to create the ruleset and the first two settings, Consortium and Lyres?

I have loved games since a very young age - I started playing computer games at about 2 (which, I know, provides clues to my age!). I started "designing games" when I was about 7 - silly kids' stuff mostly, with dreams of doing better.

After the 24 hour game I mentioned in answer to question 2, I finished university and went to London to work. For a year, I didn't play anything and I missed it a lot. I invited a group of work friends who were interested, and also several of my friends and family to join me in a game.

We played Paranoia first, and after a session or two of that, people said they were interested in something that was more long-term.

That's when I started on Era: The Consortium (although it wasn't called that yet, of course!). I reformed the Universe from the 24 hour game, tweaked the races around what had not worked, changed the universe around, and when the players created their characters, Stiletto Unit was born.

After the 5 session campaign (which had an epic ending we still run as an introductory session for people at conventions!), one of the players asked to run a session. He had a vague idea about the rules, but requested I write them down.

I did so, in the clearest way I could, which took a few weeks and, in the meantime, showed the underway to a friend I have in Canada to ask his opinion. His first thought was "Oh, cool, are you publishing this?"

Well, things went from there, through artwork, rewrites and editing, to the Era: The Consortium you now see - 500 years of playable history!

Era: Lyres was totally the opposite in terms of development. I had a silly thought one day, because I, personally, am not a huge fan of diceless RPGs. I wondered what it would be like to include minimal dice rolls, but let the players loose to say whatever they wanted.

A silly storytelling game in a D&D-like Universe when everyone is sat around in the tavern, trying to con people out of their gold, is something that just came to mind naturally as the logical conclusion, in the space of an hour (...does that say something about me?) and I was talking to one of my team about it right away!

It turned out really well, a genuinely fun game that people have really enjoyed playing!

That covers the settings but not the rules. Both games (and our planned future ones) run off the same rule set. It is a multiple d10 dice pool system with variable Success Threshold (somewhat similar to Old World of Darkness or New Shadowrun). I have worked on it to make it easily accessible to newcomers (as nearly everyone I had in my personal groups was new to RPGs when I started) but also holding enough interest and variety for the Mathematicians and Computer Scientists that make up my group! I am pretty happy with what has come out of that, people are genuinely able to pick up the game in minutes at conventions, even if they have never played a tabletop RPG before.

...and an added bonus is that all of our games have modular rules, so if you want to run a game with elements of Era: Survival in the Consortium universe, such as limited ammo and weapons that break, the rules support that!


The newest one is Era: Survival, and as of this interview it has just funded on Kickstarter. What's it all about?

Era: Survival (on Kickstarter now: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/shadesofvengeance/era-survival) is a game where you're trying to live in a post-apocalyptic world.

It's 100 years after the Cataclysm and Humanity has somewhat adapted to "Infected" wandering around the world. It's split into many different factions, each of which has a different solution for how to survive the ongoing decline of Humanity.

Some factions choose to hide underground in pre-Cataclysm bunkers (known as "Vaults), attempting to maintain the ancient technology for as long as possible, protecting all but a few front-line warriors from what's outside. Others believe that the Infection is inevitable for Humanity and react to that in their own way. Still others seek new Vaults, which may contain riches beyond their wildest dreams in the form of vehicles, weapons and equipment - enough to live comfortably to an old age.

It's a post-apocalyptic game and there's a lot of post-apoc fiction in all kinds of media right now, so what makes this different from the others?

I think there are several things that separate it from other post-apoc universes.

The first is the factions - Gaia is politically complicated, and things are changing. Two large factions are expanding from the North and the South, the most concentrated areas of Infection are expanding and most of the "ordinary people" are caught in the middle of all this. For some, capture by the Swarm or the Sisterhood of Pyrus is a worse option than being Infected! I think this is quite unique in this genre, because although many do describe cities, they tend to assume that all societies that survived are different.

It's also based 100 years after the Cataclysm, so rather than being someone who remembers what the world was like before, you're a third generation and, while you might have heard stories, you've grown up with the knowledge that Humanity might be gone entirely not long after you die. I think that's less common than the "sheltered with these people through the apocalypse" story types you see in other games and media.

Shades of Vengeance are not only getting their own games out there, they're also offering help for up-and-coming games designers; you offer services such as design, art, printing, and even podcasting and comic strips. Tell us more about why you decided to offer these services, and how it can help the fledgling games designer.

Actually, it was at a panel at Animé North!

We were asked to appear on this panel because they don't do one-person panels there and someone wanted to talk about game creation. This individual was a successful (board) game creator - he had created 2 board games bought by publishers. He was also one of the most unhappy people I've ever seen.

Someone asked him how to go about creating a game. His response was "Don't, if you don't want to spend a huge amount of money and time and risk getting something on shelves that potentially has nothing to do with what you had to start with."

My co-writer (this was just after Consortium first came out in its initial form) and I looked at each other and he grabbed the microphone and said that, alternatively, if you want to make a game and have it come out the way you envision, come and talk to us. We'll give you the benefit of our experience, help you avoid our pitfalls and get your game to print.

Seven people followed us back from there, including the creator of Amazing Space Adventures (the first external game we published) and the guys from Dice and Stuff (http://www.diceandstuff.com), who still run Podcasts of our games every week.

We've turned that into something that really does happen, does work. We've helped 3 people bring their games to life and we're working with 3 others right now.

Everyone who works with us works at their own pace. They pay for the contract work (artists and writers) that they need help with, but don't pay us anything for our work until we get to the Kickstarter, and even then only out of the profits after fulfillment. Does that mean we take a risk? Yes, a big one. We don't always get paid very much at all.

But, you know what? It's worth it, because cool indie games that would otherwise never see the light of day can make it into existence.

What else can we expect to see in the future?

Well, I hope you can expect to see more games!

We're currently working on a high fantasy game called Era: Silence, which will be ready pretty soon now. We're also working on a few more expansions and source books for the Consortium universe, which aim to answer some of the questions people have...

I can't say too much more than that, really! There's more coming, and it's going to be great, and you can keep an eye on our website for more details: www.shadesofvengeance.com

Monday, 4 April 2016

Hints & Tips - CREATING INTERESTING NPCs

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on www.rpg.net and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

The title says it all.

One thing that the roleplaying game expects is abundant NPCs, non-player characters that populate the GM’s setting with helping hands or dastardly plots. They’re either background dressing or they’re part of the story.

The background ones are no problem - you can simply say ‘the citizen points the way to the spaceport’ and that’s the end of that encounter. No serious hard work there.

It’s those NPC’s the player characters (PCs) will be spending a lot of their time with that’ll need the work. This sailing ship captain they’ve hired or that installation commander they’ve kidnapped. The key characters need dressing up.

CHOOSING A VISUAL REFERENCE

The NPC in question will need an appearance, of course, so that the players will be able to visualise his or her presence in the game. This can be done one of three ways:

1. If you’re talented artistically you can simply draw the character in question. Artwork of the NPC always works effectively as the design is almost always original, making the NPC unique.

2. A narrative description of main characters, denoting a simplistic facial or bodily appearance coupled with clothing style, always works. For example: ‘The short man is ugly with a small pig-nose and narrow eyes topped with thick eyebrows. His clothing is that of a blue flight suit, complete with tassels hanging down his back but it is filthy beyond comprehension - he looks as though he’s been dragged through an old oil conduit’.

3. Take an existing picture from a sourcebook or any other reference material and simply say ‘that’s what they look like’, adding the odd detail as far as changing the appearance goes.

The character must be firmly imprinted in the player’s minds as play progresses to avoid questions such as ‘which one was he again?’ or ‘what did he look like?’ These queries can slow a game and suspend belief if a player has to constantly remind themselves what the NPC looks like. If you have a picture of the character, place it on the table whilst the scene unfolds. If it’s a description you have read out, then make sure you’ve done a convincing job. Sometimes, the need to remind players is necessary the first time they encounter your new NPC but don’t be disheartened if they don’t take to them straight away. As in real life, getting to know a face and name takes a little time.

It’s usually the norm to base the way a character looks on their personality - if they dress dark and broody they’re usually bad guys, dressed dirty and scruffy they could be common thieves, dressed well and clean shaven they’re good people. This isn’t always the case. Dress a person in black, give them a big gun but an even bigger heart and you’ve got an interesting character. Dress another in a smart casual suit with a bright smile and blue eyes, give them a black heart and devious mind and you’ve got an interesting character. Simply basing a personality around an appearance will dilute you’re NPC’s to the point of boring the players. Changing them constantly will keep the players on their toes, or at least stop them from treating the characters as archetypes.

USING THE ‘MOP’

The acronym in the above title is what you will use to give the character depth. There are usually three things that make up an individual - Motivation, Objectives and Personality. MOP.

When designing a fresh NPC think of MOP and make a separate heading for each letter of the acronym. Make a brief list of what kind of impact the character will have on the game you’ve designed and then list their MOP statistics under each heading. Don’t put too many reasons under each one - after all, if an NPC is in the game because they want pretty much everything for every reason then you may as well create one stock character and use them for every game. Cue player boredom.

M - Motivation: What makes the character do what he does? If they’re brutish and mean, why? Has one of the player characters crossed them in the past? Does he have a secret he’s worried the players will discover? Does he have something on him he wants to keep hidden? The motivation for a person is a strong part of the psyche and must be treated with care. If the NPC is going to be with the campaign a while those motivations may change - hate into respect, keeping the secret into sharing the knowledge. Make sure the change of motivation suits not only the storyline but the character also. A broody, mean character will not suddenly become happy and friendly when something goes right or the players help them out. They may become a little more relaxed, but not a total reversal overnight.

Motivation powers the next step.

O - Objectives: The character you have created has motivation, but what exactly is he or she in the campaign for? Are they there to protect a secret, for money or for some personal reasons? Do they intend to aid or hinder the players? At the end of the day an individual does something to reach a goal. You make your dinner with the intention of eating it. You aid a person to resolve a favour. You do the job to make the money. Every action has a result; it’s just that with the NPC you’ve created the result is usually a lot more important than simply preparing food or helping out a friend. Let’s say the NPC wants to help the players capture a crime boss. Why would he help? Is there a substantial reward? Has the crime boss done something to the NPC that revenge is the goal? Give the NPC a target and then send them off - their personality will determine exactly how they go about achieving that goal.

P - Personality: Even though the NPC may have the motivation and the objective, these reasons will not be communicated to the players until it’s appropriate. It’s the way the NPC acts that the players will get to know first. Take the character’s appearance, motivation and objectives and try to create an interesting individual. Don’t always go for the obvious. You know that kindly old mage who helped the players secure that medicine for the thief of the team so that he could get over the fever? Well, it turns out she picked their pockets whilst they were asleep and skipped the town. That nasty old fellow in the corner with the dark eyes and the big rifle? It’s all for show - he’s actually never seen combat and is about as useful as a chocolate sun hat. A good mix of appearances and actions always serves to build a good character. You can still have your dirty mugger, your darkly-dressed bounty hunter and your clean shaven heroes but it pays to throw in a the odd contradiction every now and then.

So there you have it. Take an appearance and MOP it. At the end of the day what truly creates a memorable NPC is the GM; the way the character is portrayed is very important. Glare at the players if the NPC has a grudge, smile lots and keep batting your eyelids if the NPC is happy but nervous. Take these traits and blow them out of proportion. If they act in a certain way and talk in a certain manner it’s possible to just start playing the NPC without introducing them by name. If one of the players turns around and says ‘that’s so-and-so, that is’ then you know you’ve done your job.

SAMPLE CHARACTER - Grone Darkwin, Bounty Hunter.

Appearance - Grone is a short man with dark green and brown conflict clothes, usually worn under armour but, as far as can be told, worn here as part of his general attire. A rough flight coat with upturned lapels gives the otherwise rounded, boyish face a guarded look. Wide eyes topped by thin brows, a furrowed forehead and speeder goggles holding back long, matted hair. A heavy pistol hangs from a cord at his waist, his cracked black boots reaching his knees but obviously of two different sizes.

M - Fame. Grone wants to be feared and respected as a bounty hunter.
O - To track down Turgen, a local ganglord. The players are going after Turgen, so he’ll utilise their help for his own ends. If he gets Turgen, he’ll get the reputation he’s been looking for.
P - Very gruff and short-sentenced, but after a few minutes he’ll relax. He’s very forthcoming with stories of his achievements but keeps his mouth closed about his failures. As far as he’s concerned he’s already famous, and he doesn’t mind letting anyone around him know that.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Some thoughts on Warhammer

So, I've been thinking about Warhammer a lot recently.

First, there's the new Age of Sigmar, a continuation of Fantasy Battle that has destroyed the Old World completely and now the battles range across planes, like a war in heaven. That kind of pissed me off at first, what with one of my favourite fantasy settings being wiped out and all that, but I realised that the Old World stopped being about how I remembered it a long time before that - the Old World to me was the late 1980s, with the softback Warhammer Roleplay rulebook, and it went through quite a few changes that passed me by completely.

I still have my Old World and I'll continue to game in it, but the new Age of Sigmar simply isn't for me. I've read the fluff and, while epic, it doesn't really do anything for me. I've seen the game in action, though, and it looks like it plays pretty well.

Warhammer 40K is a completely different kettle of fish. I love the gonzo bonkers setting - I call it Death Metal Dune - and the history from before the Horus Heresy up to the 41st Millenium is fantastic. Everything about it screams EPPPPIIIICCCC!!!! and the atmosphere and design is fantastic. Other than the space orks, which are fun but are simply just that - stupid orks in space - it's a really well realised setting.

It's just that... it feels so stale right now. I'm not up to speed on it to be truthful - I started on the First Edition from 1987 and the last book I read was the 6th edition, but it feels like the setting needs shaking up. I haven't played the game in more than 20 years (not a huge fan, I'm afraid) but I've always loved the setting.

Other than the Horus Heresy books, which did nothing to further the timeline anyway, there hasn't really been any epic stories about the Imperium that have grabbed me. The majority of stories are about incidents on worlds that matter very little, and there seems to be a missed opportunity with doing something huge. I had high hopes for the Ultramarines movie a few years ago, but that was terrible and was just about a thing that happen to some guys on a planet somewhere.

What 40K needs is a kick in the arse, something to further the story and to give gamers and readers something to sink their teeth into. Not a story that happens somewhere that nobody cares about (it appeals to the nihilistic tone of the setting, but that's all that happens) but something galaxy-shattering and huge. Something that shows a bit of character instead of just your standard 'Kill for the Emperor!' stuff that works great for the tabletop game, not so much for the story as a whole.

I'm probably missing something as I've not read any WH40K fiction for a long time, and I accept that - please point me in the right direction if there has been something published that changes things.

I guess I'll complete my Imperium-changing WH40K RPG game and play that, and change the setting to suit my needs, like I did with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Like I do with most of my games.

That's the wonder of this hobby, and probably the reason why I shouldn't whine about this kind of stuff - I can make the story mine.

Monday, 21 March 2016

RPG Review - The End of the World: Alien Invasion

Orginally designed by Álvaro Loman and José M. Rey

Published by Fantasy Flight Games

"Massive, gleaming saucers appear over Earth’s major cities. The secret Illuminati that has ruled the world since time immemorial emerges to make its ultimate powerplay. Your own friends and loved ones suddenly seem… not quite right. No matter what weird or terrifying events are occuring, it’s plain to see that we are not as alone as we once thought. Earth has become the center of an Alien Invasion!

Alien Invasion is the third book in The End of the World roleplaying game line created by Álvaro Loman and José M. Rey. Like Zombie Apocalypse and Wrath of the Gods, Alien Invasion invites you to play as yourself, in your own hometown, as an extraterrestrial attack erupts around you. An elegant, narrative rules system keeps the game’s focus on the story as you experience one of five unique scenarios, each of which features dozens of possible adversaries and encounters. Watch out for UFOs, and prepare for close encounters with an Alien Invasion at the end of the world!"

Wow.

Look, I've tried all kinds of roleplaying in all kinds of ways; low-level crawling, high-level epicness, freeform, open world, linear, all kinds of genres, and I've even had a stab at playing in the real world, in my local neighbourhood, and even as myself.

It's not a new concept, and it's no doubt something that many seasoned gamers have tried at least once in their tabletop history, but in my experience they've always been games using an existing ruleset that wasn't designed for that kind of thing.

But this game is very different to all those other times you've tried to play yourselves in a roleplaying games, tried to act out those 'what if' scenarios you've had in your head. This game gives you the tools and the guidelines to actually have a proper go at a 'what would I do' situation, and it works exceptionally well... most of the time.

What we have here is a 144-page hardback rulebook that contains rules, guidelines and scenarios to give you and your group a great evening of survival horror. It may look a little on the slim side but at an RRP of £26.99 it has everything you need, and includes some excellent atmospheric artwork. The quality is up to the usual Fantasy Flight Games standard and it's a hardy rulebook that'll last you a while.

The book wastes no time in getting you into the action, and after the obligatory intro it dives straight into 'Playing The game', and explains the rules system and tests before you even get onto character creation. There is an assumption that you are familiar with tabletop roleplaying games and it doesn't hang around, so is it any good for new-to-the-hobby players? I'd say not really; there's enough in here to give you an idea of what gaming is about but no real firm guidelines.

Character creation is easy, and fun in may respects. Although the game is designed around the players creating versions of themselves to play in the game there is plenty of flexibility to create different personalities so that you can game as other characters in other places.

Characters have six characteristics across three different categories: Dexterity and Vitality are the Physical aspects, Logic and Willpower are Mental, and Charisma and Empathy are the Social aspects. These characteristics are graded by a number between one and five but start at one, and players then spend ten points across the characteristics to create a character that suits them.

The fun bit, especially if you're playing versions of yourselves, is that the group then votes on each of the different characteristics and scores, secretly putting dice into a bag to try and change the outcome of the character. The dice are positive and negative, which is the core mechanic of the game, and positive dice increase scores and negative ones decrease them. It's a great way of keeping egos in check - and a great way of finding out what your friends really think of you!

Features are then assigned, and these are the talents and problems the player may have. What are you good at? Don't think about what you'd like to be good at - what are you actually good at? Do you have any illnesses or physical problems? Don't make stuff up - think about how you are right now! Have you injured yourself in real life recently? Sprained an ankle, broken a bone, got a bad cold? Then put that on your character sheet - the alien invasion is about to happen so your current condition is vital!

Now for equipment... and this was a great part of character creation for all of us. Choose items that are in your house right now. That's your equipment list. It was fun for us because in my attic I have a replica Roman gladius, which came in handy, and another player had an air rifle and some knitting needles that actually fitted in the barrel (we weren't stupid enough to actually try to shoot one, of course). We actually went around my house looking for things that we could use, and even went as far as making an inventory of tinned food and water. It was a hell of an experience, and we really got into it.

The game system is very simple. Tests are decided by D6s, and once the GM has decided what characteristic to use for the test the player creates a dice pool from the characteristic and any features, equipment and bonuses that might come in handy. The pool is dice of two different colours, one colour being positive dice and the other negative dice, and then they roll. Any negative die score that matches a positive die score removes both dice from the table, and any positive die that remain which have scored lower than the characteristic equals success - the action succeeds. Anything else is a fail.

I may not have done the game system justice with that brief explanation, but once you get two or three rolls out of the way and the pieces fall into place then it's actually a great setup, with plenty of dramatic moments as the dice are paired off and scores are counted, and even though the term 'dice pool' might put some people off it's actually pretty quick and there's no situations where you end up throwing buckets of cubes around.

Once the system is explained and the way the game is run is over, the book then gets straight into ten multi-part adventure scenarios with different kinds of alien invasions, including straight-forward alien invaders, surreptitious alien infiltration, war machine issues, creatures emerging from the deep and - my personal favourite - giant ants. These games detail the actual apocalyptic incident and then also deal with the post-apocalyptic situation, so you get to live through the disaster and then try to survive in the aftermath. Each scenario can be played as-is or as an introduction to a longer adventure that the GM can create and continue on. The adventures aren't limited to the scenarios in the book, and with a little work the game can be stretched out into a long, involved campaign.

All in all it's a great game; the system is neat and quick, and the setting is evocative and gives you plenty of ideas to flesh out and play with. My issue is that the system, setting and adventures are dealt with very quickly, and my impression is that the gaming group, especially the GM, had better be old hands at roleplaying and the genre that the book is replicating because there isn't much here to guide you through the process.

While I appreciate the simple rules don't need much explanation and the quick, effective task resolution makes the game much easier to handle, the adventures themselves are a little thin. As they make up the bulk of the book I expected something a bit more thorough and detailed, but as with the rest of the book there's an assumption that the players know the genre and that the GM already has experience with creating adventures or at least playing them on the fly, as the scenarios are more a list of situations and adventure hooks than a proper play-by-the-numbers adventure. There is a timeline for the scenarios but the very brief day-by-day incidents give no detail. The games are very much the bare bone of a campaign, and the GM is expected to fill in the blanks. That's not much of a problem for seasoned gamers - in fact, they'd no doubt see it as a challenge - but that doesn't give players new to the hobby much of a chance, and that's why I see this game targeted at groups with plenty of gaming experience.

Also, in my experience the gimmick of playing ourselves got quite old quite quickly, and we had much more fun playing characters totally different from ourselves. While the character creation and equipment gathering parts of the game were great fun when trying to create a character based on ourselves, and to start with the team dynamic was really good, in actual play - about three sessions into the game - it became a little stale and the novelty wore off. When we're talking about getting vaporised and breaking into local stores for supplies and equipment it was kind of fun, but when questions are asked about other friends and relatives it got a little awkward. Not only that, but there were two or three incidents where perceived abilities and game abilities created a slightly heated debate. It didn't ruin the game - in fact, there were moments when it strengthened it - but I guess it's down to the individual groups as to where they want to take this kind of setup. Tongue-in-cheek, serious or fantastical, it's up to you, but we found we had the most fun when it wasn't about us, and we created characters far removed from our own lives and abilities.

The End of the World: Alien Invasion is a good game and a lot of fun, but be prepared to do quite a bit of filling in the blanks as the GM, and make sure you have a thick skin if you're playing yourself. This game isn't for everyone and there may not be much longevity with the adventures included, but the system is pretty solid and you'll get some good games out of it, as long as the group is on the same page.

Recommended.