Friday 30 March 2018

RPG Review - Coriolis: The Third Horizon

By Tomas Härenstam, Nils Karlén, Kosta Kostulas and Christian Granath

Released by Free League Publishing/Modiphius Entertainment

‘Coriolis – The Third Horizon is a science fiction role playing game set in a remote cluster of star systems called The Third Horizon. It is a place ravaged by conflicts and war, but also home to proud civilisations, both new and old. Here, the so called First Come colonists of old worship the Icons, while the newly arrived Zenithians pursue an aggressive imperialistic agenda through trade and military power.

In this game, you will crew a space ship and travel the Horizon. You will explore the ancient ruins of the Portal Builders, undertake missions for the powerful factions and partake in the game of political intrigue on Coriolis station – the centre of power in the Third Horizon. You might even encounter strange beings from the Dark Between the Stars.

From the Monolith in the jungles of Kua to the floating temples of Mira, the Horizon is yours to explore. You can be traders, explorers, mercenaries, pilgrims or agents. Whatever your calling is, together you will make your own fate. In the end you might even discover the truth about the mysterious Emissaries and the threat of the Dark Between the Stars.

Coriolis – The Third Horizon was awarded the ENnies Judges’ Spotlight 2017 and is produced by the makers of critically acclaimed Mutant: Year Zero (six-time nominee and winner of a Silver ENnie for Best Rules 2015).’

When Coriolis: The Third Horizon landed on my doormat I was already intrigued about the game. I’d read about it and enjoyed the excellent artwork, and the game felt like something I’d love to play. Mysterious, dark science fiction with mystical powers and supernatural, sometimes horrific occurences. That sounded like my kind of game.

I had no experience with Free League’s other games such as ‘Mutant: Year Zero’ or ‘Tales From the Loop’ and I knew little about the game’s system, so when I cracked open the 388-page book and started reading it I was expecting a comprehensive, detailed system so I was quite surprised by the light rules and the expansive setting.

The hardback tome is of excellent quality and the cover illustration by Martin Bergström, showing three about-to-get-into-trouble characters on a dark, forbidding world really starts the mood. In fact, the artwork throughout the book is of high quality with some shadowy, inspirational images and it’s supplied by Christian Granath, Martin Bergström, Gustaf Ekelund, Christian Granath, Magnus Fallgren, Tobias Tranell and Joakim Ericsson.

First we start with an introduction to the game; what we have here is a far-future setting in a cluster of stars far removed from Earth, and the entire setting is inspired by Middle Eastern culture, from the way religion is practised to the clothes they wear; this isn’t a straight-forward copy of any region or belief system, however, this has been designed and tailored specifically for the game. There is a short explanation about roleplaying games which gives a general overview but is pretty standard stuff. Is it new player friendly? Well, if you’re a regular GM and your players are new to it yes it is as the system is quite user-friendly and intuitive, but for a completely new group coming into the hobby cold maybe not so much.

Chapters two through to seven contain everything you need to create a character, use them in the game, crew a ship, equip them and travel the stars of The Third Horizon. The game’s premise is that the players are playing the crew of a starship and are travelling the Horizon to gather fame and fortune, with plenty of character templates to choose from to get you started - Artist, Data Spider, Fugitive, Negotiator, Operative, Pilot, Trailblazer, Preacher, Scientist, Ship Worker and Soldier – each with three of their own concepts to choose from to really help you individualise your character.

Each character has four attributes; Strength, Agility, Wits and Empathy. These are numbered between 1 and 5 – the higher the better – and also affect the skills each character has. There are General skills which everyone can do and Advanced skills that can only be performed if the character has training in them. You can also choose Talents, in-game abilities to help with rolls or situations.

There is a large focus on a character’s background; the game encourages talking about personal problems, their relationships with the other players, where the character comes from and their upbringing. Some of this has no real mechanical effect on the game and serves to give the character impetus, a reason for travelling the stars and a great starting point for roleplaying. There are hints and choices as to what kind of problems and backgrounds to consider but the game does encourage creativity and allows for players to create their own histories and issues. It’s a nice little addition that really pushes you to think a little deeper about the character.

This extra detail may be because the game system itself is really simple and easy to explain. When you want to perform an action you take a number of six-sided dice equal to the Skill score added to the Attribute score it’s associated with. Once you have a number of dice you roll them and any die that rolls a six equals a success. Just one six will succeed, but the more sixes you roll the better the level of success.  The number of dice rolled is modified up or down by equipment, the situation and any other factors but as long as a six is rolled it’s a success, and if you get extra sixes then the success may have other benefits, such as a bonus effect that aids the group or a critical hit in combat.

So, for example, the Skill ‘Infiltration’ is an Agility-based Skill, so with an Infiltration score of 1 and an Agility score of 3, I get to roll 4 dice. If I roll any sixes it’s a success. The system is really easy to grasp, and the character sheet is simple and good to use. But what happens when things go awry and the players need help?

Well, then they can pray to the Icons, the religion of The Third Horizon. The Icons are a supernatural force that can help – or hinder – the players and if they fail a roll they can ‘Pray to the Icons’. This gets them a re-roll and increases their chances of success, or even add to existing successes, but beware; invoking the Icons results in a Darkness Point that goes to the GM, who can play this point at any time in the game to foul up the players; a NPC can re-roll, a clip empties, or a personal problem comes back to haunt the PC. So beware on calling for the powers for help – that can come back to haunt you. These Darkness Points can also be generated by using Mystic Powers; yes, players can also play characters with mental powers that can see through time, read minds and move objects… at a price.

I’m a big fan of the game system. It’s quick and easy to use, the rolls and their effects can be decided upon quickly and the combat is fun. There’s a critical chart for major damage which helps decide the severity of wounds and the chances of death, and I do think that this could have been stripped down to something a little less complicated to reflect the rest of the simple system. It can slow down the pace of an exciting encounter a little, but overall it’s still a great mechanic and it’s light enough to allow players to concentrate more on the actual character rather than the numbers on the page.

Continuing with character creation, the players then get to design a ship and then they decide who mans which role on the vessel; a Captain, an Engineer, a Pilot, a Sensor Operator and a Gunner. This helps to define their position on a vessel as the game revolves around their adventures on their own starship. There’s plenty of detail here, with rules for flying a starship across the Horizon to combat and everything in between but I can’t help but feel that, as with the combat critical chart, there’s a level of complication here that can slow down the game. Starship encounters revolve around a sequence of events that allows a Captain to issue orders and the players then have a pool of points allocated to them to enact those orders. There’s the Order Phase, the Engineer Phase, the Pilot Phase, the Sensor Phase and the Attack Phase. These phases give each player a chance to perform their designated ship duty – for example they can pilot out of trouble, divert power, and fire a weapon. As the players decide what to do the action can slow, and once again this felt out of place as the rest of the system flows so quickly. However, the nature of this aspect of the game calls for crew positions and the rules being split into phases really helps to highlight that as it gives a chance for everyone to be involved, with space combat being less about quick barrel-rolling dogfights and more about tactics and planning.

The second half of the book is chapters 8 through to 15, which detail the setting and it’s history, The Third Horizon, creatures and finally an adventure. This is the real meat of the book and it’s what gives the whole game it’s power.

The setting of Coriolis is one of mysticism, darkness, exploration, intrigue and adventure. This section will give you background about the setting, the Factions that live there and their political, sociological and spiritual leanings and influence, and a basic rundown as to what they’re like which can also help during character creation. There are ten major Factions and a selection of smaller groups that have great power in different areas, and then there are darker, more mysterious organisations that hide in the shadows. All of these Factions work with or against each other, openly or by subterfuge, and create all kinds of trouble across the Horizon. Throw in the Emissaries and reportedly dead Factions and you’ve got some serious political tension that can make for an amazing gaming backdrop.

However, there was a part of me that felt that there was more to the details presented, that we had been given a large chunk of data about the setting and the Factions but there was more below the surface, with some details being mere teasers. I imagine that this will be expanded upon in later supplements and adventures, but for now there’s plenty to be going on with.

The setting itself, as explained earlier, has a Middle Eastern influence. The dress, the names, the design, the whole aesthetic is of an Arabian style, and the artwork reflects this. The whole game, from the way people practice their beliefs to the writing on the hulls of starships, has an ethereal quality that really helps to enhance the atmosphere. Do you need to follow this theme? Not at all. The game allows for any ethnicity and you can easily change this aspect of it but I think this would take something away from the setting itself. The game literally oozes the Middle East vibe and that, I think, is one of it’s strengths.

This is then followed by a more detailed look at a star system, Kua, and the Coriolis, the space station that is there, and then an atlas of the Third Horizon as a whole. Beasts of both the normal and more exotic versions are then presented; there isn’t much here and more illustrations would have served it well, but there’s enough to be going on with. The book is then rounded out by an adventure and then a much-needed index.

So… how did I get on with it?

I’m not going to beat around the bush. I loved it.

At first I wasn’t sure how to sell this to my group. It was a little removed from the type of things we’d played before and the setting and system was new to me, but it was an easy sell in the end. I just told them that the game was a combination of the TV show ‘The Expanse’ and Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’. You see, I’d just come out the other side of a Frank Herbert book session when Coriolis reached me and it couldn’t have hit at a better time. I was pumped up on the spiritual aspects of the classic novel and the ideas of religious fervour and misguided hero worship, and I’m also a huge fan of ‘The Expanse’ and the political turmoil it presents, not just on the solar system but on the little people, too. Once I sat down, gave that analogy, and then explained the setting of the game and the basics of the system we were ready to go.

Explaining the system to the players was easy. Add Attribute and Skill, roll, and I want to see sixes. None of them had any experience with the system and they took to it quickly, with hisses when no sixes showed and smiles when they did. I was on hand to explain extra effects and the only slowdown and page-turning occurred during combat, but that’s to be expected with any game. The first combat was a simple firefight, four players against four bad guys, and it was resolved in perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes.

However, the starship combat really slowed things down, and it was agreed (after a forty minute vessel encounter) that we’d leave the starship rules for a while until we were totally okay with the rules at large. When we did come back to the next starship combat we were ready for it and it worked out much better, but it was still long and felt out of place with the rest of the system. It wasn’t a bad thing; in fact, the players appreciated the chance to have ship positions where they were able to have a hand in the entire proceedings. Some game systems allow players to blast across the cosmos while the groundpounders have to pick their nails, but this game gets everyone involved.

The setting is where the game shined. The mystical science fiction Middle East really helped set the  tone as not only was it science fiction, with all the tech and space travel trappings that comes with it, but it also had an exotic quality to it that gave it an edge of unreality. The players really got their teeth into it and had fun with it, and by the end of the session we had (badly reproduced) accents and web surfing looking for Arabian clothing and designs. It made for a great game, and the game designers should be applauded for their design choice.

I think I clicked with Coriolis straight away because of my ‘Dune’ stint and the frame of mind I was in at the time, but don’t let design choices put you off. If the setting isn’t your thing then change it; there is nothing in the setting that affects the game mechanically. Don’t like the choice of setting? Then change it to something else, maybe Far Eastern or African. If you don’t like the mysticism then drop that, too, and then you’ve got a perfectly useable science fiction roleplaying game that you can use in quite a few different settings, including settings such as ‘The Expanse’ and ‘Dune’. It makes for a pretty decent science fiction roleplaying game as it is, and the detailed setting is a huge bonus.

It was an excellent experience with the easy to use system, the wonderful setting and the way the player characters are encouraged to have a depth and an important role in the game. It really gets everyone involved from character creation, through starship design and crew designation, and through to the game itself. Players can have an influence on the fate of their characters and the story with the Icons, and suffer problems as a result, and this in itself creates a high level of drama that is only accentuated by the mysterious, powerful setting. It allows you to play games filled with adventure, mystery, spirituality, investigation, horror and exploration. It not only allows you to travel The Third Horizon, it allows you to experience it with a character you care about because they, too, have histories, dreams and goals. And for the GM it’s quick to set up a game as the system is easy to use and NPCs easy to create, so you can focus on the story and the plot and really create a saga for players to grab hold of and dive in to.

I have my issues – the slowing of gameplay during combat encounters, the compexity of starship creation and combat, and the somewhat incomplete feeling I got from the setting – but these are far outweighed by the positives of the game and I’m sure that these issues will smooth out over time and experience with the game and the inevitable expansions and supplements.

Coriolis: The Third Horizon is one of the best games I’ve come across in years, both in setting and mechanics design. It’s wonderfully presented and it’s a great read, and if there was such a thing as a ‘Farsight Blogger Seal of Approval’ then this game would be getting it.

Highly recommended.

Thursday 29 March 2018

My invisible playtesters

Comic character 21 by Firkin
When I'm writing an adventure I need to give it an initial test to make sure that it's going to appeal to an average group. To do this I can't sit down with my gaming group and ask them if they'll enjoy certain aspects of the adventure as that'd ruin the surprise for them, so I have to look at the adventure from different angles to make sure that everyone has something to do.

To deal with this I began to build the game in my head with several invisible friends with different play styles to make sure that the adventure I was writing was going to appeal to everyone in the group. I would sit down with a pad and list out the five kinds of player that I've experienced over the years. Of course, if there are others these can be added too, but for now I'll stick with the five I know.

I would then make notes on each type to make sure that they were catered for in the game. If I was designing for a regular group and I knew the players it made the job much easier and I'd make sure that each one was catered for as best I could, but for new groups or general adventures I needed to be a bit more aware of the possibilities.

Of course this didn't work for all games as some games have a specific play style or genre that they're trying to emulate, but for general adventure games the full five usually worked out well. If the game was going to be more angled to a certain play style, or the game turned out that way, then I'd simply drop one of the types or at least reduce their importance.

I especially began to do this when I started writing adventures for public consumption, as the many varied play styles or attitudes to the game that groups out in the wild have will need catering for, or at least acknowledging to be sure that it appeals to a larger number of groups. The adventure would go through playtesting anyway, but I always felt the initial design needed attention before that point.

So, for example:

The Action Player - This one is simple; is there enough action to keep this player happy? The game doesn't have to be filled with it, and depending on the game the combat encounters might take up quite a bit of time, so making sure that the Action Player gets to hit, shoot or outmaneuver an opponent is dependent on the game system.

The Storyteller Player - Is the story good enough to keep this player happy? If the adventure has a plot that can be followed or the overall story of the adventure is relatable then the Storyteller Player should be satisfied.

The Puzzle Solver Player - This doesn't have to be a riddle or a physical puzzle to solve, it could be a series of events or plot points that need to be put together for the Puzzle Solver Player to be satiated.

The Dramatic Player - Character interaction and melodrama can really make a game and the Dramatic Player can be pleased with some memorable NPCs, moments in the game where they have the chance to have in-character conversations with the other players and relish those moments of high drama during the game.

The Explorer Player - How big is the land or the location? What is there to do there? Some players love to explore and poke their noses into rooms, look for secret locations, walk down paths that aren't signposted or just experience the location in it's entirety.

Tuesday 27 March 2018

Using 'TV Bibles' for RPG campaign design

Raseone TV by raseoneSomething I do when designing a campaign for any game is try to imagine what it would be like as a long-running TV show. If I can imagine the design and setting and lay it out for myself and my players - like a TV series bible - it helps to create the world and gives it depth and consistency.

With established settings this is really easy as the work is already done for you. Star Wars and Star Trek are the easiest by a mile, and pretty much anything that has a visual and emotional cue from a popular TV show or movie puts everyone on a level playing field and everyone knows why they're at the table and what kind of game they're playing.

So, to make sure that my Coriolis games have that sense of reality I'm going to have a go at designing a 'series bible', and as the setting work is already done for me - I've just purchased the PDFs of all the supplements so I have a huge playground to adventure in - I thought I'd concentrate on the look and feel of the game.

For example, I'll be addressing things like the below (I'll be talking about this like a TV show, so bear with me):

Every actor hired will be of Middle Eastern or Indian origin. If the actor can physically pass for anyone from that region then they're in. There are a few actors that automatically qualify from the Middle East and India, and there's all sorts of actors that would suit the part. As long as they have that presence then it would work.

The design should be misty, mystical and heavily influenced by the Middle East. If in one scene they're in a cantina that resembles a stylised version of a  bar in Morocco, with great piles of cushions and hookahs, then when they get onto a starship and it looks like the Nostromo from 'Alien' or have the clean white walls of a Trek starship, then the viewer will be pulled out of the setting almost immediately.

Apart from combat scenes, everything should be done in an ethereal, slow way that allows the viewer to drift along with the story, which will make any violence or moments of intense melodrama stand out, enabling them to be more effective.

The music will be background only and be of either an Arabian or meditative/yoga quality. There's plenty of long looped tracks on Youtube that can serve this purpose.

And the list goes on.

You can find details on how to create a show bible over on the ScreenCraft website here; it could help you get your campaign thoughts together and help pitch your game ideas to your group, giving details on the kind of game you want to run, what the sessions might be like and the route you intend to take. It could really help with the initial 'what game shall we play for the next few months' conversations.

Saturday 24 March 2018

Wargame Review - Kobolds & Cobblestones

Kobolds & CobblestonesBy Robert Burman

Published by Osprey Games

‘Kobolds & Cobblestones is a skirmish wargame for rumbles between gangs in the city of Ordinsport's seedy underbelly. Players hire gangs of criminals, thugs and enforcers from a number of classic Fantasy races, and attempt to take control of the underworld and establish themselves as the city's kingpins. Playing card-based mechanics and a cunning bribery element keep players on their toes, as a one-sided battle can turn around in a flash.’

There’s all kinds of fantasy wargames out there at the moment, from gigantic armies clashing in waves across huge battlefields to small warbands vying for power and glory in the ruins of dead cities. It’d be easy to say that there’s a certain expectation from games such as these and that’s to emulate the warfare between races, factions and kingdoms.

Kobolds & Cobblestones takes that world of fantasy but instead of the glory of battle and heroic sacrifice it has players running around seedy streets taking part in what is basically gang warfare.

The small 64-page softback book is full-colour with a very energetic cover by Ralph Horsley, who also supplies the interior illustrator, and it reflects the game and setting really well. The layout is fine, although the typeset is a little small, and the book is suted to being opened and left on pages with a bit of pushing, but don’t worry about the spine cracking or pages coming out; it’s quite robust.

The game takes place in a city called Ordinsport, a city where all kinds of different fantasy races live in harmony. Apparently. Underneath this veneer of happiness and justice for all is the underworld, a place of seedy goings-on and where crime bosses and their goons and thugs fight for control. It’s the aim of the players to try and take over the underworld and become a kingpin, using violence, cunning and bribery. Sounds like fun. There is also a small metaplot for the game but it’s not 100% required to follow it to play; a previous kingpin called Ja’kal has died and his treasures, hidden behind magical wards, are appearing across the city. Much fighting between rival gangs ensues, which is what gives your gang it’s impetus to fight.

First of all, a player has to create a gang –  the Gang Members section gives a few Gang Leaders and the gang members who can be added to your team. Leaders are represented by a stat line that includes any character traits and special abilities, and then you can recruit your gang members; Runts, Thugs, Big Guys and Specialists. Each gang member costs gold.

You’ll need a pack of playing cards for this; nothing special, just a standard everyday pack of 52 cards. These not only judge the outcomes of clashes but also are a handy guide for movement; you can move the length or width of a card so that does without the need for pesky tape measures. The cards are used for model activation and combat, and when you attack you pretty much play poker. The winning hand does damage and can even result in critical hits. Special Abilities can be used to help in conflicts and Wizards can also be a great help with some helpful, tide-turning effects.

Image result for Kobolds & Cobblestones interior
Image from the rulebook

With rules for campaigns and eight simple scenarios, Kobolds & Cobblestones is a great little book and at a RRP of £11.99 (£9.99 digital), and perhaps a pound or two if you haven’t got playing cards in the house, it’s a good game.

So, how did we get on with it?

Truthfully, it took us a while to get into the game. The game system is, basically, a fantasy skirmish game that’s decided by playing cards. It’s a neat rules system and it helps reflect the nature of the game, with the seedier backroom side of poker adding to the atmosphere. However, the skirmish wargames we are used to involve the quick roll of a die and the results determining the outcome. With Kobolds & Cobblestones we had to learn a card game – I’m not all that familiar with poker – and then use the tables in the book to determine the outcome of clashes. This took a little time as it felt like I was learning two games, but once I got into the flow of things the game sped up quite nicely and we were having rather fun encounters. They felt a little slower than the dice-rolling games I’m used to, but they were fun nonetheless.

The game itself is very well presented and the rules clear and concise. I especially liked the use of the length and width of playing cards to determine movement distance and the activation and moving of models was quick and easy. It had a great atmosphere and we especially enjoyed giving our Gang Leaders silly names; Gob the Guilder was a favourite of mine, Gods rest his soul.

At first a single encounter took us about an hour and a half once we started the game as we were fresh to the system and the card rules, but after several games we were happily belting out encounters with small bands of dwarves, lizards, ratmen and goblins – you can pretty much play any fantasy race you want - in half an hour to forty minutes. These were with models numbering 5 or so, and when we tried battles with larger numbers, around 15 each, that’s when the games would stretch out into two to three hour combats.

All in all it’s a good game with a great premise. I have a long history of dicerolling wargames so this was a nice change of pace, and although using playing cards wouldn’t be my go-to system it’s definitley a good addition to my gaming shelf for those quick and fun encounters with a difference, the chance to play a game where you don’t take it too seriously.


About the Author: Robert Burman has been hooked on wargaming and board gaming since opening a copy of Heroquest at the age of 11. Over the years he's dabbled in all manner of games, tried to improve his painting skills, written his own stories and created numerous scenarios. In 2015 he launched Tabletop Gaming Magazine to celebrate the many titles currently available.

About the Artist: Ralph Horsley is an award-winning artist who has worked in the print games industry for more than two decades. In that time, he has worked for leading games and game publishers, including Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft, and Warhammer.

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Roleplaying in the Dune universe - the final chapter... house.

Image result for dune book coverI've been writing and musing over a Dune tabletop roleplaying game and how I'd like to run it. My last two blog posts have concerned this, primarily because of the RPG 'Coriolis: The Third Horizon' by Free League Publishing.

The more I have considered it, the more I find it difficult to think of a campaign where the player characters would be able to have any kind of fun and not feel overshadowed by the huge events that occur within the Dune books. What might work is a game set before the events of the primary book and the following stories, as the sheer amount of influence the main events have over the entire setting may limit the options of a gaming group, unless the players are playing the characters of the book and creating their own version of the saga, but I'm not a huge fan of alternate realities in gaming. I much prefer my groups to have much more control over events and not feel swayed or pressured into doing what has come before.

I think the best route for me to take is to create a game set well before Dune and concentrate on smaller Houses, perhaps minor Houses of insignificant worlds that have their own affairs and vendettas to tend to. They're footnotes on Guild reports, or unread files on the Padishah Emperor's desk.

At this point I should mention that I have only read the first two 'Prelude' books by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. I didn't continue beyond those first two books and I'm sure there is a huge amount of material that can be used. However, I have no real knowledge of the content of these books so they don't have an influence on the direction I've decided to go.

Anyway, these Houses would have their own histories and banners and have access to the Landsraad but not have a seat there for all the major decisions. It would give the players a fantastic opportunity to create a dynastic family they are part of, are loyal to, work for or are secretly working against as a group. Perhaps the player's team are a collection of several Houses, either working together to improve their standing in the Landsraad or, better still, they are fighting to avenge their fallen banners against a larger force. Let the Atreides and the Harkonnens have their issues; we know how that turns out. A whole new set of Houses on the periphery of the Known Universe having their own problems opens up a lot of amazing opportunities.

That way I can keep my iconic Dune toys; Bene Gesserit, Mentats, shield fighting, smugglers and traders, novice Space Guild representatives getting their first taste of power, new Navigators flexing their minds... there are plenty of opportunities for the player's to really sink their teeth into the setting and be hugely creative. Every now and then I could throw in something hard hitting, like a Sardaukar visit or an Imperial inspection. I can even throw in something different; how about some Weirding Modules?

Image result for pendragon 4th editionAfter giving it a lot of thought, I think a great game system to use would be Pendragon, as the whole dynastic feel of the game and the fact that campaigns can cover many years would suit the setting down to the ground. I don't have to worry about space battles or travel as that's all taken care of by the Guild, but ground vehicles might need some stats. Thanks to shield technology the order of the day is swordplay, but some basic guns can be statted. As far as mental powers are concerned that would be easy to replicate.

Visually, I love the design of David Lynch's 'Dune' movie. It's not the greatest interpretation of the book, and the end leaves a lot to be desired, but the design is quite excellent and although I'd change some of the starship designs and bulk out the stillsuits, the look and feel of the movie gives it a fantastic atmosphere.

So, I'm already having some ideas. A player group could be an ex-smuggler helping a noble of a fallen House, the Bene Gesserit advisor, the House Mentat and the Captain of the Guard escape from a world that a rival House has conquered. Not a world, a moon. A simple garden moon where some of the most desirable and expensive delicacies are produced for the greater Houses, and the small House in charge stands to make a huge profit, as does the Spacing Guild Heighliner that passes through the system every few months. The invading House desired the profits and what better way to get them than to disgrace the House in charge, concoct a pretex for invasion and then drive them out.

The players get to create a House, it's family and history, the heraldry and uniform design, and the world itself. After that, the game is in my hands and I can create the rival House, their homeworld, and all the adventures and storylines that come with it. The Pendragon system then enables me to run a game set over years and even decades, and we can follow the fortunes of the House over generations.

Dune is an amazing setting, and the book touches on religion, politics, ecology, and all kinds of things that give the Dune universe a reality that's hard to find anywhere else. This opens all kinds of roleplaying opportunities for adventure, conflict and introspection. I don't want to intrude on the main story, but to take the elements of the story - the Houses, the spice, the different orders etc - and use them in my own games is quite exciting.

Sadly, I parted company with my copy of Pendragon (4th Edition) in the Great Nerdpurge of 2006. I'l have to source a new copy, but that shouldn't be too hard. Then I'll have to find players to actually take part on my madcap campaign idea. I'm a little fearful that I may not get that far.

But I must not fear, because fear is the mind-killer.

Friday 16 March 2018

A 'Dune' roleplaying game

Image result for dune first editionIn my last blog entry I discussed my love of the Dune universe and the fact that I have never been able to run a game with that same sense of intrigue and mysticism. I thought I'd expand on those thoughts a little more and try to make sense of why that is. Bear with me; this is probably more for my own edification than anything else.

I have never owned an official Dune roleplaying game, namely 'Chronicles of the Imperium', so I have never seen an official interpretation of the science fiction and religious elements of Herbert's book in practice. That's a shame in many respects as if I had seen the game I may have had a better understanding of what it was I wanted to do with a Dune game, where I wanted it to go and what kind of story I wanted to tell. However, I couldn't find a gaming group to play that kind of game with. My group was casual and enjoyed having fun with the games - as did I - and even though I tried to surreptitiously sneak games with these grand ideas into the mix they never took off.

I used to think it was a decent game system I required. After all, it was easy for me to have grand ideas of star-spanning adventures, intricate plots and intrigue between the great Houses of the Landsraad, and soul-tearing tales of religious passion and persecution. Would I have run the game on Arrakis, and have the players members of the Fremen, or House Atreides, or even spies for the Harkonnen or the Padishah Emperor? Maybe they could have been simple traders, or smugglers, or perhaps I could have designed a lesser House for them to represent? The scope of Dune is huge and there's plenty that could be done, so all I needed was a game system that could reflect that.

I should mention that my desire to run a Dune game only included the first three books by Frank Herbert, and elements of the universe he created in the following books. I've only read the first two of the Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson books but never continued. I imagine that there is plenty more material to choose from in their books, but they are beyond the scope of what I wanted to do.

At first I went with my standard science fiction options, namely 'Traveler' and 'Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game' (WEG 1st Edition). These are two great games - the Star Wars D6 system being my favourite - and quite easy to create a campaign around. In fact, with a little tweaking the psionics and the Force rules could be modified into something that would suit the Dune universe, and the effects of the Spice could be interpreted by the rules. But, to me, Dune felt more like a science fantasy story, based as it was on feudal houses and mystical prophecies.

So, I looked at standard fantasy systems, mainly 'D&D' and 'Runequest'. I also looked at 'Starfinder', but to be honest the standard 'Pathfinder' game seemed more suited to the setting with some elements of Starfinder included. I came to the conclusion that starship rules weren't really a necessity as space battles weren't the order of the day in the Dune series. D&D was a default option - it was the game that my group played the most - but the leveling put me off as I wanted the players to concentrate on the story and not what their characters could get out of it and how they could improve, which is something that I feel D&D focuses on. With Runequest I found that I had better luck with 'Cthulhu: Dark Ages', what I see as a kind of Runequest-lite. It was quick and easy, and with a little modding I could bring in modern weapons from normal 'Call of Cthulhu' to reflect the weapons in Dune. Pathfinder is good, but I'm moving beyond rules complexity these days and it had the same problems as D&D.

I had choices as far as system was concerned, but I came to the conclusion that no matter how perfect the system was or how well I could adapt it to suit Dune, the real challenge was convincing a gaming group to sit down and play an epic game of intrigue and otherworldly powers.

And that was the real problem, I think. I couldn't force the players into spending their time focusing on a world that they may not have felt the same way about. The general feeling at the table was all about having fun and partaking in crazy adventures, and to ask them to reset their gaming habits to a more serious tone was a bit of an ask. I did try through other games to include a sense of seriousness and drama to test the waters, but inevitably the games reset to the fun factor. My attempts to find a group who were willing to play a Dune game the way I would have liked it to be played were fruitless.

So, I moved on to games that emulated the ideas of Dune but were not Dune; perhaps my players would play a game where they could still have fun but also allow me to introduce these elements into the game to satisfy my own needs?

Firstly, I attempted to create my own game. 'Spirit' was a game set in the League of Seven, seven star systems ruled by the Kerraph Empress Thane Cherin, and was set hundreds of years after a devastating civil war that tore the League apart. Hundreds of other star systems had moved on and created their own civilizations and empires, and the drive of the game was that the League was trying to bring them back into the fold with the promise of advanced technology and, if necessary, violence in the name of their Kerraph Empress, who was descended from a deified person who first created the Clans and the League... oh, I could go on for ages about that. I wrote it up and put it out there for people to play, but it wasn't complete or polished and it was more of a tester to see what people thought.

It never saw much play; I ran a few games using my systems, a D12 system that wasn't great and my own SKETCH system, but I ultimately settled for the D6 system. The games were fine, the feedback was good, but it didn't hit the mark.

So, I decided to read another game of the ilk and that was 'Fading Suns', which is right now being developed by Ulisses North America. It was excellent, the game system was usable and the setting was very close to what I was looking for, with Houses and a pseudo-Medieval culture. Sadly, I never got to play it.

Now I have 'Coriolis: The Third Horizon', but I won't repeat myself here. I talked about that in my last blog post.

So... what did I take away from all of this?

Well, for a start I think I approached the difficulty of running a Dune game the same way I did when I was trying to run Middle-earth games, which I talked about here. I was somewhat elitist in my view on how a Dune game should be played and was most likely rather limiting on options; because I had a definitive vision of what the game should be I didn't take the player's views into account. They may not have been interested in the deeper philosophical elements of the game, but they may have played it with a sense of melodrama that I would have no doubt enjoyed. It's that meeting half-way thing I think I struggled with, the point between getting really involved in a game and simply enjoying it for what it is.

System-wise, I don't think it really bothered me as long as we had a system to use. I don't think I would have enjoyed a crunchy system with hundreds of options as that can sometimes detract from the purpose of the game, but a system that was too light wouldn't have given the PCs much individuality, and detailed characters are something that a Dune game cries out for. I think that's why the D6 system would have worked for me, it's an easy intuitive system with enough detail to have really unique characters.

Actually playing in the Dune setting? Now that I look back on it, I'm not so sure it would have worked as well as I would have wanted. It may have been fun for a few games, but the overarching metaplot of the Houses and CHOAM and the Fremen... the players would have felt that they were playing second fiddle to a much bigger story, and as the fate of the human race had already been decided thanks to Leto II they may have felt that their actions were pointless, with much bigger things hanging over their heads. I get that, and it didn't need to be the case, but once again the vast scale of the setting - and it's fame - would have overshadowed things.

So that just leaves me with 'Dune-but-not-Dune'. I think this is going to be the best way to go. My own 'Spirit' game is always an option but it requires a huge rewrite and a better game system, but it means that the players can do things that will affect the overall story arc which is a much better experience for everybody. If I do use this I'll most likely use the D6 system, primarily the 'Mini Six' system from AntiPaladin 'games.

'Fading Suns' is an excellent choice and I liked the original game, but if I go down this route I'll wait for the new edition from Ulisses North America.

'Coriolis: The Third Horizon' is the game that set me off on this whole thing anyway, the game reminded me of what it was I wanted to do with a Dune-esque setting because of the ethereal Middle Eastern influences on the game setting, which is something I felt was present in Dune. Of all the options I think this will be the one that I end up pursuing as the mystical, intrigue and adventure elements are all there, so it truly is a game that will allow me to meet my players in the middle.

Alternatively, I could keep searching for a group who are as invested in the Dune world as I am. I'm no expert on Dune - far from it - but I feel I would get a lot from running a game such as that. It was what made my Star Wars games of the 1980s/1990s so successful; the entire group were already huge Star Wars fans so their passion for it came out in the games. That's something I'd love to replicate with this.

If you've made it this far then thanks for sticking with me. I think this was more to help me make sense of what I wanted from a Dune game in my head, and I wanted to share my thoughts.

Wednesday 14 March 2018

Coriolis - The Third Horizon

Image result for coriolis the third horizonNow, this product will get a proper full-on review in the near future, but I felt I needed to share a few things about how this game from Free League Publishing has managed to not only punch me in the face and shout 'LOOK AT ME, I'M BEAUTIFUL!', it's made me think about a level of gaming that I haven't thought about for years.

I'm a huge fan of Dune, Frank Herbert's sprawling epic of feuding worlds, mysticism and cult worship that hasn't been equaled, in my opinion. What always struck me about the story, and this is something I loved about the first three books in the series, was the effect that religion and blind devotion had on some of the characters, not because they had faith in Paul's abilities but the fact that these abilities were demonstrable and therefore quantifiable, giving an entire new level of passion in the beliefs of his followers. It's why I always found the jihad in the books terrifying, not because they were devoted to Muad'Dib and believed in his powers, but because they were actually justified in their beliefs because it was all real. I'm not saying they were right in their crusade - far from it - just that they kind of had a point.

Such was the impact that this had on me as a young man it stayed with me for a very long time. In fact, with the absence of a Dune RPG I could actually get my hands on I tried to emulate it with different systems, or at least find a game that had the same kind of approach. I tried a few different systems and games (quick plug, I had some success with 'Stellar Adventures' but I did write some of that book so I'm biased!) but I couldn't find one that scratched the itch. Not only that, I couldn't find the players to play the game with me as I needed players who were on the same page.

Middle Eastern culture had quite an influence on Dune, I think, with Arabic and Islamic themes that really enhanced the universe that Herbert had created. I loved that; from the feuding houses which felt very Medieval to the sands of Arrakis that felt incredibly Middle Eastern, the themes really stood out.

I ended up letting it go, and instead of trying to game in the world of Dune I decided to try and find a game that emulated aspects of it that I loved.

And that brings me on to Coriolis.

Coriolis wears it's Middle Eastern influences proudly, and rightly so. It even has it's own system of mysticism, with it's fledgling powers and Icons, and the Dark between the Stars. There is true power here and the people of the Third Horizon, with their designs and beliefs shaped after Arabian culture, exist in a world where this power exists, they can pray to it and get results and can exhibit powers that could drive entire nations into a religious fervour.

That's perfect. That's what I'm looking for. It's not the Dune RPG I hankered for, but then I'm not sure a true Dune RPG would ever really work as different people come away from the books with different impressions; some love the feudal warring Houses and the intrigue, some love the environmental references, some like the religious overtones, some love the action and adventure elements. That would make a Dune game difficult. However, Coriolis takes each of those different angles and mixes them all together... well, maybe not so much the environmental side of things. Action/adventure, mystery/exploration, mysticism/intrigue, and to cap it all off there's a metaplot that opens up all kinds of opportunities.

Can you tell that I'm quite excited about this game? Finally I might be able to play in a world that I've thought about since my first attempts at a Dune game, and I'll be able to cater for the different kinds of gamer that wants to sit at my table. I get to explore the effects of faith and belief and my players get to fly around in spaceships and blow stuff up. I think we'll meet somewhere in the middle, and Coriolis - The Third Horizon will facilitate that.


Coriolis – The Third Horizon is a science fiction role playing game set in a remote cluster of star systems called The Third Horizon. It is a place ravaged by conflicts and war, but also home to proud civilisations, both new and old. Here, the so called First Come colonists of old worship the Icons, while the newly arrived Zenithians pursue an aggressive imperialistic agenda through trade and military power.

In this game, you will crew a space ship and travel the Horizon. You will explore the ancient ruins of the Portal Builders, undertake missions for the powerful factions and partake in the game of political intrigue on Coriolis station – the centre of power in the Third Horizon. You might even encounter strange beings from the Dark Between the Stars.

From the Monolith in the jungles of Kua to the floating temples of Mira, the Horizon is yours to explore. You can be traders, explorers, mercenaries, pilgrims or agents. Whatever your calling is, together you will make your own fate. In the end you might even discover the truth about the mysterious Emissaries and the threat of the Dark Between the Stars.

Coriolis – The Third Horizon was awarded the ENnies Judges’ Spotlight 2017 and is produced by the makers of critically acclaimed Mutant: Year Zero (six-time nominee and winner of a Silver ENnie for Best Rules 2015). Features:

- Create your unique player character – including skills, talents, gear, and relationships – in mere minutes.
- Fight fast and furious battles, praying to the Icons to overcome your enemies.
- Build and crew your ownspaceship, to explore the many star systems of the Third Horizon.
- Experience thrilling spaceship duels, using a game system that puts all player characters at the heart of the action.
- Take part in the intrigue between powerful factions on the majestic space station Coriolis.
- Uncover the mysteries of the Third Horizon, a rich tapestry of cultures that have settled the stars.

Sunday 11 March 2018

BECMI, and my sadness

Here's something I honestly regret - parting with my original Dungeons & Dragons boxsets.

The Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortals boxsets were very special to me; the red box Basic was my very first foray into roleplaying games and I held it in very high regard. The art, the layout, the fact that it was so different from anything I had ever played before, and that it was giving me a chance to expand on my love of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that I had been playing for the previous year.

The first three boxes especially guided me through my first months and years of roleplaying games. I never got to use the Master and Immortal boxes, but it didn't matter as the damage had been done and I was on my path to playing, running, writing and collecting games.

I had a huge RPG collection. I had more than 30 different games and systems of varying quality and some of them had a huge slew of supplements and adventures. WFRP, the WEG Star Wars RPG and Call of Cthulhu especially had dozens of books taking up space on my shelf, and the collection took up a lot of room - and time.

When my son was on his way I made a very simple choice - I had to sell off my collection. I had neither the time or the room to hang on to this 20+ year collection, so I hit Ebay and started the cull.

Some of my games I sold for peanuts, others sold for incredibly high amounts; my original MERP modules and Call of Cthulhu books raked in a lot of cash. In the end, I made enough money to pretty much pay for everything my son needed and the first year or so of his life. The collection turned out to be an investment, and it paid off.

I never intended to sell my BECMI set, but as I was putting a lot of stuff up I got a lot of questions about what else I had and a recurring question was about Basic D&D. So, I checked out some prices.

They were worth a lot. A complete set, two boxes still in shrinkwrap, with all the dice and the wax crayon... I tentatively put it all up for sale. I won't say how much it went for, but I will say that I was stunned.

And that was it. I hung on to some of my books as I honestly couldn't part with them (and I was still using them, to be frank) but my BECMI set was a sale that made me a lot of money, and I miss them a hell of a lot. Just to have them to hand, to read and to enjoy, and to step back in time to the sunrise of my gaming hobby.

I got a copy of the Rules Cyclopedia a few years ago and it's amazing, but it can't replace my BECMI set. That was, and always will be, something special to me.

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Friday 9 March 2018

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st Edition

Related imageI was recently gifted an original print of the amazing Realms of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness and it's something that I have not looked at in thirty years. I'm ashamed to say that I never purchased it when it first came out, and now that I have it and I'm looking at it in depth I can see so many different avenues my WFRP games could have taken.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is my favourite game of all time. If I reviewed it fully today it probably wouldn't rank very high as far as mechanics go but that's really not the point of the game at all; in my eyes, the unbalanced, easy to abuse system with it's oh-so clunky magic is a wonderful reflection of the chaotic, unfair nature of the world it is set in.

The game came into my life when I was about 17 or 18 years old. I'd been roleplaying for about four years and up until that point I had only experienced the high fantasy side of gaming; Dungeons & Dragons. Heroic deeds, flashing swords and a Hollywood realisation of the European Middle-ages kept me entertained, and the only flash of slight insanity I had experienced was through the playful Fighting Fantasy world and some Call of Cthulhu.

So, when WFRP hit it was amazing timing. I had reached my angsty, nihilistic teenager phase and, coming out of education into a country seething with unemployment, I had nothing. The cover and the content of the WFRP game perfectly reflected my mood and the sheer creativity - this pseudo-historical insanity with Monty Python-esque dark humour and a huge dose of British cynicism - really hit home.

Britain at the time was going through a huge change. This post-punk era seemed unreal and the nation, still under Thatcher, sometimes felt like it was unravelling. The British attitude was somewhat 'yes, it's all quite shit but soldier on' and WFRP seemed to capture all of those elements. The dark, grim world of perilous adventure with it's twisted humans, punkrock dwarves and social elite elves was an amazing twist on the worlds I was used to, with noble heroes and justified slaughter. Now, here was a world where everyone, from Emperor to beggar, was corruptible, damaged and on the edge of insanity. Games were dark, bleak, and dangerous, and the first few games were one of fear and concern as your worries weren't about getting enough gold to buy that new magic sword, but if you would survive the next day without being gutted, going insane or dying from some horrendous disease.

It was fantastic.

The rulebook was dripping atmosphere and it was so complete that it was all you needed to run games for years. However, alongside this incredible game was the campaign 'The Enemy Within', a sprawling adventure about corruption, madness, cultists and sheer bloody carnage. 'The Enemy Within' is one of the campaigns that I feel all gamers thinking of designing their own campaign should read to see how it's done. It not only tells an amazing story but it fills out the Old World wonderfully.

A second edition came along and, as much as I enjoyed it and even preferred the rules, it never captured the essence of WFRP for me. The third edition came and it was very well designed and a good game to play, but it lacked longevity for my preferences. Even Zweihander, with all the obvious love and attention the writers put in to the game, couldn't unseat my favoured edition. I always end up returning to first edition, partly for nostalgia but mostly because the atmosphere the books evoked was just all-encompassing, and really helped me set the tone of the games I designed.

WFRP will always be my favourite game. It's not my favourite gaming system, but the rules and the setting sit so well together - and the game itself came along at just the right time for me - it's going to be nigh on impossible to unseat it from that lofty pedestal that I've put it on.

Image result for warhammer fantasy roleplay cubicle 7

Tuesday 6 March 2018

Why I Fight - character background stories (or a lack of them)

Female Warrior Silhouette by GDJI'll be honest with you - I don't usually look into a character's pre-game history that deeply. When I create a character the personality forms as the stats are created, even more so if I'm rolling randomly, but that's about as much character detail as I like to go into. All I know is that my character will be going on some highjinks adventures (it's why I'm playing the game, after all) and for that initial game I need a reason to get involved. More often than not he'll be looking to take the plunge to improve his lot in life (ie 'looking for fortune and glory').

It honestly depends on the type of game I'm playing - most of my fantasy characters are looking for fame and gold, but my MechWarrior character was a strong Davion special forces soldier who gave his oath to his house, my Golden Heroes character wanted to fight the good fight, my Shadowrun character wanted to haul himself out of the gutter.

In general, though, I like to start my character off with a simple, regular goal so that I don't have to think about who he is, what he's like and why he's doing it. In those first few games I'm looking for some plain, unmoulded clay. As the games go on he develops and the character grows. Depending on what happens to him in the those first few adventures, probably the first few adventures he's ever had, will determine the sort of person he becomes. Up until then he could have been a simple, unassuming person who was just plain nice. After eight games trapped in the plague-riven dungeon of Hell he could turn into a cynical backstabber who just wants to live, or after a few games pushing back the tides of evil he could be a flag-waving do-gooder who fights for the honour and safety of the good people of the land. I honestly won't know until the games have been played out.

For that inital jaunt the majority of my new characters start out somewhat selfish and then maybe find their altruistic tendencies, depending on the game the GM runs. It's not the only choice - and the majority of my players like to detail their backgrounds and dig deep to find their reasons and that's fine - but it's a way of getting initially involved that works best for me because I like my character development to happen during gameplay.

Thursday 1 March 2018

GMing: Learning from mistakes

Railroad Tracks Lineart by TikiGikiOne of my biggest failings as a GM when I first started out running games was the fact that I felt, as the controller of the game, I not only had control over the direction the game took but I also had control over the fate and the even the decisions of the players.

I think this was borne out of two things; Firstly, I felt that as I was in charge and I had designed the story of the game then the game should progress as I saw fit. Secondly, I felt that the players were there to be entertained by me and so it was up to me to talk them through something that I thought they would find entertaining. It was both a misconception and a conceit, and my first games suffered terribly for it.

This approach to GMing stripped away any control the players may have had, or even wanted. I didn’t simply railroad them, I forced them onto the train and strapped them to the seats. I was literally narrating a story, telling them what was happening and in some cases what they were doing, and I only stopped and asked for their input at certain points, such as when a fight was about to take place or a situation/puzzle needed to be solved. Looking back on it now I can’t even fathom why it is I never noticed the looks of sheer boredom on the faces of the players. It’s actually embarrassing to remember it. I was so wrapped up in the powers that I had been given - or that I had granted to myself – I didn’t even realise that players were the other 50% of the game. I was the GM and I had The Power! I can simply put this down to inexperience but it amazed me, years later, when I took part in games where the apparently experienced GM was running the games in exactly the same vein. I played in groups where this way of gaming was the norm for the GM and the players sat back and let the GM go on and on and on. It was incredibly strange to experience, especially since I already knew these people and didn’t expect it from them.

GMs do not have The Power in the literal sense. They have the reins but they don’t have full control of the bolting horse. In fact, if anyone has The Power it’s the players, as it’s their decisions and actions that drive the game forward and result in an enjoyable fulfilling experience for everyone. It took me a while to realise that and now I feel my games are better for it.