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Review : Conspiracy of Shadows Revised

Tuesday, December 6th, 2005

By Keith Senkowski, Bob Goat Press, $12 PDF / $20 Softback / $32 Hardcover

How far are you willing to go to learn the truth? That’s the question Conspiracy of Shadows asks of its characters. How does it help your players do this, and how does it guide your play towards this goal? Read on.

In the interests of full disclosure: I really liked the first edition of the game (review here), so much so that I got to know Keith. I helped with some editing on the Conspiracy of Shadows Companion. I like the game a lot, so if I come across as a fan, that’s because I am.

I’ve always been somebody who likes the more, grimy, pseudo-medieval settings. Places where the kings are corrupt and the populace are fearful. It’s part of what appeals about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and it’s also part of what appeals in Conspiracy of Shadows too. The player characters are people with a drive to help their society, but that drive may end up with their own corruption, death or loss of their position within society. Revised Conspiracy of Shadows retains this feel, and adds a few more tweaks to help you achieve a story of this kind in play.

From a visual point of view, Conspiracy of Shadows Revised is a bit tighter. The smaller size pages makes for an easier read. After use, the thing I think what mildly flawed the first editions layout was the long line lengths. The new smaller package makes it a much more a “easy to dip in” layout. The PDFcomes with lots of nice bookmarks too. The illustrations give the book a particular feel of brooding menace, and the cover now feels more individual and is less reminiscent of a White Wolf book. The game is available in PDF, hardback or paperback, whichever is your preference. This review is based on the PDF.

How does the new edition stand up rules wise? Sleeker and more satisfy is the general feel. I liked the old version of the rules, but they were fairly generic story facilitating rules. The new revision adds more spice to the solid base ingredients. The rules for tasks and combat have been clarified to be conflicts and extended conflicts, much like The Shadow of Yesterday. The step by step “how you resolve stuff” is feels clearer this time round, with intent being used to decide whether you use a simple 2D6 plus Attribute and Skill roll or a series of rolls with initiative and momentum (you get 4 actions in a row as long as you keep succeeding). There are still more old-school elements like maneuvers, but added to the weapons as situational modifiers are things like “church authority” and “reputation”. It’s the same system, but the focus is shifted. I like the shift, others with a more traditional play-style might not.

Doom is a big change to the game, and one that I thoroughly approve of. You get to define your character’s eventual destiny, a dark fate towards which they are being drawn. Take a point of doom to win a conflict you absolutely must not fail. But that win brings you closer to your eventual doom, spend that last point and your doom is at hand. See what that does? The mechanic throws that “How far are you willing to go to learn the truth?” question out to the players right away. Does your character care about doing this enough to have it bring you closer to a nasty fate?

Trust is also a new addition. A pool of points that can be drawn on to help in important conflicts. But it goes up and down based on based on how much trust and dedication the player characters show to each other. In this way it acts much like a pressure counter. You know the group’s is in trouble when the trust pool gets thin and the need for trust increases as trouble escalates.

Advice on creating the game is expanded from the previous edition, and takes you step-by-step through the process of building a conspiracy and then planning how to use it in game. The metaphor of thinking about the game like a TV series is used to good effect here, and helps you get a much more solid idea of what the game is intended to be. There are a couple of sections that seem to go against the group-participation angle of the rules, notably the episode construction section which talks about linear plots.

The land of Polian hasn’t changed much since first edition, as far as I can tell. It’s still a rich setting, conveyed in a remarkably small amount of space. The organisation of the book seems to have relegated setting almost to an appendix, but to my mind this is a good thing, as it puts the process of creating a great set of characters and a great conspiracy ahead of it in the game’s priorities. It sends a direct message of “your guys are what matters here, not the background fiction.”

Overall: Conspiracy of Shadows Revised builds on an already good system to create a much more focused game. If you own first edition, you might be OK just checking out the system tweaks over at the Bob Goat website. However, the overall presentation and emphasis of the game are much clearer in this edition, so personally even though I got the PDF for free, I’ll be buying the nice new hard cover, which will stand up to a bit more at-table use.

Review : Cold Space

Sunday, November 6th, 2005

By Clash Bowley et al, Flying Mice LLC, $10 PDF

Cold Space is a PDF download from Flying Mice / Better Mousetrap Games, and uses the Starcluster system (as used in Starcluster and Bloodgames). Essentially the setting posits a universe where, shortly after the 2nd world war, a method of advanced space-flight was created. Thus we get the cold war in space. Simple concept, how does it pan out?

The setting is given as a rough time-line of events that mirrors those in actual history, but with space battles and planetary proxy wars replacing the historic equivalents. This gives it the advantage of an easier hook than a lot of the space-opera games out there. No need to explain who the Soviets or Nato equivalents are to anybody who grew up with the cold war. As such it’s probably an easier sell than Starcluster.

The setting is split across four broad eras, initial (1954), early (1955-64), Middle (1965-74) and Late (1975-89). Each with a slightly different focus and politics, and for each of the eras recommended campaign settings are provided for different styles of character. It’s a slim package and weighs in at about 14 pages of basic setting material in all. It gives a feel for what’s going on in the various eras. My main criticism is that it’s light on the human angles, I’d like a better idea of how the average US or USSR citizen felt about the space-based cold war. What radical diversions from historic attitudes were there? The sporadic addition of fiction and setting-style songs does help to get a better feel, but doesn’t do quite enough more my tastes.

Towards the end of the book there are breakdowns of the various planets and their raw data like plant life and population and habitability. Again though, although we get maps, images, a brief gazetteer and stats, I’d have preferred a bit more information that was of use in-game. Who’re the major political players on the planets, what kind of attitudes do they have and who are they in conflict with. How can players be drawn into those? Hooks for the PCs is what’s needed, it would seem to fit the kind of game Coldspace is.

Art-wise Flying Mice have a particular brand of slightly abstract work, that gives the PDF a certain feel. It doesn’t have the hard-edge, clinical feel that a lot of sci-fi arts goes for. Layout is generally good, though two-column is harder to read on-screen and the lack of PDF bookmarks (and the PDF pages not matching the page numbers) doesn’t make navigation easy. It should be OK when printed though, since there’s an index and table of contents. The PDF does come with a star map prepared in AstroSynthesis, which might make a cool play aid if you’ve got a laptop that you use in play and like fiddling with starcharts.

The majority of the PDF is the rules and character creation. Much here is the same as you’d find in Starcluster 2.0, in fact there doesn’t feel much difference on a mechanical level between Coldspace and Starcluster. It’s a solid enough old-school game of the traveller ilk: careers-based generation, tactical-focused combat-oriented system, lots of rules for weapon effects, spaceships, travel times and so on. The careers system isn’t quite flavourful enough for my tastes. I’ve been spoiled by the Burning Wheel’s careers system, where my lifepath choices mould the characters personality as well as skills.

The large amount of space spent on system has another drawback, if you’ve already got one of the Flying Mice games, then you may feel that you’re paying for something you’ve already got. I wonder if for those people it might not be better as a setting add-on book.

Overall: If you like old-school traveller-style games of spaceships and missions, the Coldspace setting will give you an accessible place to run games in a no-weird-aliens environment. However setting material is pretty sparse, so if you’re a fan of deep backgrounds it’s not for you.

Spiel Essen Report

Saturday, November 5th, 2005

I planned to go to Spiel on a whim. It was a large con in a country that I spoke the language for, and reputedly a cool place to hang out for a few days. It gets more visitors that the main US con, GenCon, and it’s practically on our doorstep globally. I dragged my girlfriend along on the promise of a brief holiday in Cologne afterwards. Included here are my thoughts on the experience:

Travel wise we flew from Birmingham to Cologne/Bonn. It took an hour and cost 50 quid, I expect it’ll cost me a similar amount to go by train to Dragonmeet. We then got the (nice and swish) InterCity Express train to Essen Hauptbahnhof. Only minor issue being buying the local train ticket and having to pay a supplement. The Holiday Inn took a bit of finding (our map wasn’t great), but was fairly central to Essen and pretty good for 50 quid a night. We mooched around Essen for food, and discovered it does bars and grills and that’s about it. Had a reasonable pasta dish and a nice drink of Diebels Alt, which is on the aley side of German beers

Breakfast next day came courtesy of one of the many German self-service bakeries. Pastries and chocolate milk, mmm. We then caught the U-Bahn to Messe Essen (4 journey ticket for a couple of Euros). Messe is like the NEC, huge conference halls with lots of parking. The queues were extensive, but well managed (I thought only the Brits knew how to queue properly?), entry for up to four days is 25 euro (17 quid).

The main hall

Inside the hall was packed. It feels big, then you realise there’s another 9 halls. The big family boardgames are the first three halls, along with the latest collectable card crazes. Each stand has a demo table or three, and if you stay for a moment you’ll be sucked in. It’s a frenzied mix of demos and purchasing (people bring trolleys to fill with the latest releases). The smaller halls are home to smaller games companies and a host of comic and tat retailers, complete with an artists alley, where you can have pictures drawn for you.

RPGs are mostly confined to dark and dingy hall 6, the only place with a distinct lack of demo games… Which is kind of jarring when the rest of the con is so focused on play. Lots of LARP kit though, including full-on chaos armour a couple of thousand euros and some neat bows. If you want oddments, it’s a good place to browse. There were some really nice miniatures, my favorites of the lot being the pirate miniatures from Freebooter, who gave me Haribo so must be good. I managed to impress my girlfriend by failing to notice the scantily clad woman dressed up as a Confrontation miniature until she was waving a flyer in my face.

We spent most of the first day wandering round getting an idea of what was there. I popped in to see the guys at sighpress, who I’d chatted to at the Forge, they were showing a cool post-apocalyptic game – Degenesis – and German translation of Unknown Armies. Reading their products taxed my A-Level German, but the artwork and layout is of amazing quality. I expect an English translation to sell well on production alone, if they can get it sorted.

Our games first game of the day was Oltre Mare, a game of merchants around the Mediterranean from Rio Grande. I think we annoyed the staff by being two people playing on a our person table… German snacks were eaten to keep on the move. We found a small contingent of UK people at the back of Hall 7, including IRM Magazine (who I thought should be encouraged, so gave a review copy of Nopress), Crimson Empire and LARP Stalwarts Eldritch.

Spiel is a place to bring a game even if it’s not yet for sale, the distributors and shop owners do the rounds.One cool unreleased game we saw was called King of Chicago, unsurprisingly about mobsters. Bargain of day one was Cartoon Action Hour RPG for 5 Euros (3 quid). A day mostly browsing and walking took its toll, so back to the hotel for a kip and dinner.

More bakery Breakfast for the next day. We took a more studied approach involving more sitting and demoing. First played was Cashtrap, a fun abstract family boardgame from a family company from the UK, get your money to the bank on the otehr side of the board while blocking your opponents. Next up was Daimyo, a hex-based strategy game. The game has a cool card-passing mechanic that means whatever you do this turn will be available to your opponents next turn. Xig, a fun game of jigsaw building with some lovely characterful artwork was next. Simple to play, and ideal for kids and adults to play together. Warumono 2, a game of heist esape and briefcase shenanigens, from a Japanese company. Also saw but didn’t play, Anachronism, the History Channel CCG, for those who want to battle Genghis Khan against Joan of Arc.

The card-game highlight was Badaboom from Gigantoskop a game of goblin bomb diffusers. Great artwork, cool premise, fun gameplay. We bought that and its twin, “Spank the Monkey” a game of junk pile building. The guys at Gigantoskop were very chatty and entertaining salemen, those in the RPG hall could learn a thing about demos from them. By pure chance ended up playing in the demo with, Jurgen, the man responsible for the German version of Inspectres. I ended the day by browsing the hall for bargains, and got three of Hogshead’s New Style games (Pantheon,Puppetland, Violence) for 6 Euros and had the pleasure of seeing a copy of Nopress on sale.

Saturday we took a break from games and went to Essen Zollverien, Essen’s only tourist attraction, a disused coalmine, now a world heritage site and re-purposed to house a design museum and modern art installations (including the bonkers Palace of Projects). We were going to head back to Spiel afterward, but a slow waiter at the cafe stalled us somewhat. Nice beer though.

Sunday was the last day and we set about turning up early and playing a few games before the crowds arrived. Essen station’s left luggage was handy store for our backpacks while we went back to Messe. Niagara was first test of the day, Spiel des Jahre (game of the year) 2005. A fun game of boats, diamonds and a neat river moving system. Treasure Island followed, a game of territory control and pirates, as demoed by a kid who was minding the store. A fun diversion, but the artwork could do with being sharper. Palatinus, a not very fun game of roman hills and control (unclear rules and uninspiring play) rounded the actual play off.

I popped back to talk to Tim at Sighpress, who’d had a good con, bar getting a cold. I’d sadly missed their demos on Saturday (curses!). Had a mooch around the Holistic booth, talked to the booth staff, and took a gander at their proposed cardgame, which has some stonking artwork.

Finally I did some purchasing in the dealer room, including some nice LARP kit. Also picked up a copy of Aye, Dark Overlord a RPG-Cardgame hybrid (kinda like Bedlam or Munchhausen) of Goblins making excuses to the eponymous Overlord. Great potential for crossover into broader market there.

Overall: Spiel is definitely more geared towards boardgames, it’s a family occasion and a great opportunity to try before you buy. There’s a substantial RPG crowd too, but what’s missing is more solid demoing from the various RPG vendors. It is certainly a place to pick up bargain RPG purchases though! If you can combine it with a trip to Germany, it’s well worth a look.

Review : Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 2nd Edition

Tuesday, September 6th, 2005

By Chris Pramas et al, Black Industries/GW/Green Ronin, £25 / $39.99

Warhammer has a special place in most UK roleplayers hearts. Back in the late eighties, when Games Workshop were still generic hobby store, it gave many of us our first taste of an RPG. For us it set the goalposts for what we expected, in the same way that D&D had for people ten years before. The game achieved a cult status with its dark fantasy setting, street level adventurers and black humour.

Then GW stopped stocking RPGs and ceased producing their own. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay became the preserve of the die-hard fan. Hogshead kept it in print throughout the mid-nineties and even produced several supplements. It became one of those games with a huge following who played the game, rather than simply awaited supplements. When James Wallace finished with Hogshead, the license reverted to GW, and the fans worried that it would never see the light of day, due to GWs seeming indifference to the roleplaying hobby. Then last year news spread that GW’s black industries imprint were producing a new version with Green Ronin, producers of D20 material, writing it.

A lot has changed since the original WHFRP was published. Gamers expect more in terms of coherence of rules and quality of production. While the old game was fun, it had its quirks and a certain set of 1980s assumptions on how all RPGs should work. The new version has to tread that fine line between improvement and moving away from the original source. Do they manage it?

Lets start with the look. 254 pages of full colour, shorter than the old edition, but with cleaner design. The Geoff Taylor cover showing a grizzled group of adventurers knee-deep in Beastmen is spot on. It manages to be vivid, without sacrificing that “grubby” look that WFRP always had. The main book is scattered with characterful illustrations and easy to read text. Coherent ordering. Decent index. As an artefact it’s quite good.

The opening fiction is short, and ties in with the example of play, so it seems to actually serve a purpose. There’s the obligatory “What is roleplaying” section, which is less awful than some, but still gets itself a bit confused about what the point of the game is. Like many it tries to describe what RPGs are, rather than what this RPG is.

After a brief intro we’re dumped into character creation. It’s random. Now I pondered for a while on this decision. It flies against current trends, but there’s something endearing about randomly being a tattooed Hochland Rat-catcher born under the sign of the bonesaw, and it neatly dovetails into the street-level feel of the game. It gives the game a particular flavour, forcing creativity though not getting what you want. I’m sure some Fan will create a points build version soon enough though.

The creation process leaves you with a Dwarf, Elf, Human or Halfling with a random profile consisting of Weapon Skill, Ballistic Skill, Strength, Toughness, Agility, Intelligence, Willpower and Fellowship, ecah rated in a percentage. You also calculate a second set of characteristics: Attacks, Wounds, Strength Bonus, Toughness Bonus, Magic, Insanity and Fate points. You also get some racial and random talents, things your character is good at.

Careers follow, and are at the heart of the system. Each is a flavourful insight into what people do in the Warhammer World. You don’t need prose on how the Empire is filled with dissent, when you have a career like the Agitator. Each career gives you certain things you can buy your character as you earn experience. As noted above your first career is random, after that you can follow through it’s various exits to new ones: Ratcatcher to Thief to Rogue.

Each career gives your character access to a variety of skills and talents. For players of the old game, this is new tweak. It separates learned stuff from natural talents and aptitudes, almost. Effectively it’s a game difference between skills to achieve tasks, and talents that grant other bonuses or access to things like magic. For example you have the perception skill, but the Acute Hearing talent gives you a bonus on a particular type of roll. Skills allow you to make a percentile roll against one of your primary characteristics to achieve a task, if you don’t have a skill you can try but your characteristic is halved. Skills can also now be taken multiple times for additional bonuses.

So, you create a character. Then you equip them. The equipment chapter contains details of all your favourite weapons and armour. Details of weapon qualities (Pummelling weapons help you strike to stun, for example). It also contains details on travel, living expenses, coin types and the effects of getting drunk (for those unfamiliar with this). Again, it’s a bit retro in it’s approach to such things, but made entertaining by the little details about the Empire setting included. If you like tracking everything to the last coin, then this is great, if you prefer a more abstract “story necessity” method then it’ll be less enthralling.

The combat section gives a look at the core of Warhammer, gritty combat. It retains the wargamesque nature of the original, with a healthy dash of D20isms thrown in. It talks about miniatures, splits up rounds, defines available actions and gives entertaining critical hit tables. The basic combat mechanic is still: Roll under your skill on D100, reverse the roll for location, roll D10 and add your damage subtract toughness and armour, take the result from your wounds. If you get reduced to 0 wounds, take a critical result from the tables of mutilation.

Magic is the most changes section of the book from the older version. The new system is more in line with current Warhammer Fantasy Battle, bringing in colour magic and making every spell failure a possible daemonic manifestation. The new spells are clear and flavourful, so I don’t think any older players will object and petty magic like “Protection from Rain” remains.

Belief and Religion gets it’s own chapter, and adds a nice splodge of setting flavour. It gets the superstitious nature of the setting across well, and nothing defines people better than what they believe in. Sure it’s mostly background colour, but worthwhile.

The GMs section is your standard “Act as Referee, define the story, play non-player characters, here’s some sample adventures” kind of affair. Given the rest of the book’s focus, the section on Themes and character driven adventure seems out of place, but it is welcome. The chapter also deals with insanity, in fact a good deal more space is spent on this that how to GM. Good for setting the nature of the game, bad for advising how to run the game.

The Empire setting gets a chapter of its own. As mentioned above, much of the falvour for the setting is spread throughout the book, so don’t be surprised that this is a relatively short summary of history, geography, politics, external and internal threats. It does the job, and you don’t need to know most of it to play anyway.

Finally the game includes a quick set of sample antagonists from Orcs to Bandits to Dogs and a Sample adventure involving guarding some refugees. The bestiary is not exhaustive, but since Warhammer mainly concerns itself with the internal goings on of the Empire, an array of beasts isn’t necessary. The scenarios is quick and a useful intro for newcomers.

Overall: If I’m honest, what I wanted was the Warhammer Storygame, what this is is a very loyal modernisation of the original WHFRP. The new book is loyal in tone and mechanics to the old one, and as such will please existing fans. For my part though, I can’t help but wish that it had tried to innovate just a little more…

Review : Bits of Dungeons

Thursday, January 6th, 2005

By Daniel Brakhage, Mark Potter, Vicky Potter, Randy Eliason, Tabletop Adventures, $4.75 PDF

It’s quite hard to review a product that doesn’t quite fit with your style of gaming. The temptation is to rail against it, or deride. But that would be a disservice, just because you won’t find a product useful, doesn’t mean somebody else won’t find it a godsend.

Which brings me in a round-about way to Bits of Darkness: Dungeons from Tabletop Adventures. This 40-page PDf is a selection of “Fluff and Atmosphere”. Little passages or text to spice up your dungeon delving, and avoid saying “it’s another empty room”.

They’re designed to add color and fancy to otherwise bland dungeoneering.So here’s my difficulty. I haven’t run a game this way in years. I’ve always been a “Cut to the stuff that matters” GM. I like my player-driven story. I’ve played a fair few dungeon games in my time, sure, but I’ve rarely known a GM who couldn’t improvise an evocative decription at the drop of a hat.

So I’m struggling a bit to see how this product will help me, or people I know. Maybe it’s handy if you don’t have 5 minutes before a game to rough out descriptive ideas and a theme for your dungeon? The product is for promoted as “for a harried GM who hasn’t time to write what’s in every corner of a Dungeon”, so I suppose this is the market. However, even when I prepare games I hardly ever run anything with more than a few minutes worth of notes about key ideas, so I’m used to filling in those gaps myself. Grabbing something random that doesn’t fit the feel of the game I’m going for, well just seems wrong. I suppose if you were running a sort of random encounter-based game, then you could slot these into your major encounters as filler.

Anyhow, the product has two types of section: Shards and Bits. Shards are mini-encounters, complete with D20 stats and possible offshoots. There are six of these, and they remind me of the color from the Warhammer Quest board game. Not that that’s a bad thing at all.Bits are smaller, paragraph length items, such as:

“42: some sort of oily liquid is dripping from the ceiling in this area of the hallway. There is a shallow trough worn down the middle of the hallway, and the fluid trickles down it for abotu fifteen feet before disappearing into a crack in the floor.”

I was slightly annoyed that I had to type that out again, since the PDF wouldn’t copy and paste properly. Anyway, it gives you an idea of the kind of thing that is contained in the PDF. They’re divided broadly into sights, sounds, scents and stuff, with about 100 in total. So you get your share of “the stone in this corridor is an interesting shade” and “dank rotting smells”, to add to Dungeons in need of wallpapering. Lots of slime, muck, corpses, rats, spiders, you get the picture.

There’s also 20 bits for catacombs and 20 bits of trouble, extras that may require a roll of some sort. If you lack inspiration, then I suppose many of these could be expanded into encounters, or used as a springboard for game ideas.

The last 20 pages are divided into cards that repeat the various bits, which you can print out and use for quick reference.

Overall: If you’ve been playing for a while, I doubt you’d get much use from these, unless you just want to grab a bunch of players and roll up a random Dungeon. If you’ve got a newbie who wants to DM a game of D&D, then this might help him on the way to learning a few pat responses for the question “So what does this room look like?”