Review : Bits of Dungeons

A selection of desciptions for Dungeons

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?”

Review : World of Darkness Rulebook

White Wolf’s new rulebook for modern horror games.

By White Wolf, $19.99 / £11.99  Print

So here we are. Ten years after the begining of The World of Darkness it ends with Gehenna (or your personal choice of ending). With the old one dead, we get an entirely new one. Or do we? I’ll assume that in reading this you’re fairly conversant with the old World of Darkness (from here on in WOD) games, and try and focus on differences between the two.

Lets start with the bad. There’s lots of intro fiction. It’s hard to do right (I’ve tried myself) and the new WOD intro stuff just doesn’t grab me. Now this might be a taste thing – I’m willing to admit that – or it might be a sign that short stories aren’t a good way to introduce RPGs as a concept. It just makes the differences between fiction and group participation storytelling more obvious.

Moving on swiftly to the layout and illustrations. They’re good. Evocative black and white artwork throughout, with easy to read pages and nicely placed quotes. WOD 2.0 is designed. Everything I would expect from White Wolf. As an artifact the book is nice.

So, it’s page 22 and we finally get some description of what the book/game is about. It’s about horror, apparently, and mood and setting. And by the way, rules don’t matter…

Dive back into some florid prose.

Resurface again at page 32 for a solid 2 page rundown of the rules (which don’t matter, remember) followed by a brief 2-page explanation of character creation. Despite the inconsistencies of attitude to rules there’s good solid stuff here, lots of quick ins for existing players, who are bound to be the primary audience.

Next we have a spread of glossary and a spread of common rolls. Those 8 pages contain the core of the book distilled down: Make your character with points, Attributes, skills, Merits and Flaws. Roll a pool of 10-sided dice based on attribute+skill 8s or higher are successes.

The rest of the book is details; Minuitae that expand on those pages. I’m quite sold on these games which treat you like you’ve played an RPG before like this, but give new players options too.

The sections that follow expand our understanding from these basics. Attributes are described in detail, they’re now broken down by usage (power, finesse, resistance) and type (mental, social, physical) for a total of nine. It’s a scheme that makes sense, and adds clarity. Want physical finesse? That’s dexterity. Want mental resisitance? That’s resolve.

In the game Skills are used to achieve tasks (isn’t that a bit early 90s, isn’t conflict resolution where it’s at in storytelling games? I thought White Wolf were cutting edge?) Each skill is listed with examples, who might possess it and possible specialties. Skills are split into mental, physical and social categories and they’re all quite broad. Specialties can be used to make your character better at a particular niche within a skill, and you get three of these to start with.

Each character has Advantages. These are ways your character gets an edge in the world. Or derived attributes that are used for finiky things like initiative, willpower and health levels. Morality is here, interesting as it may put the focus on moral choice in all WOD games, not just Vampire as previously. A good thing in my opinion. Commit a sin on the morality table and lose morality rating. Losing morality costs too, you’re character is likely to gain derangements at each drop. They might get morality back at the end of a story if they redeem themselve too.

Each character must pick a virtue (based of seven virtues) and vice (based on seven deadly sins). Driving character traits that nicely map out a characters core thematic conflicts. They rock on toast, and are a great tool for player and Storyteller alike. A character with the virtue of Fortitude and the Vice of Wrath is about being tested by the world and sometimes giving in to anger. Cool, as an ST I got my handle on that character really quickly. The virtue and vice also feed into the willpower mechanic of points to increase chances of success, and indulging vices gets you back spent willpower.

You also have more chance of surviving with humanity intact if you commit a sin whilst following a virtue. These things are tiny tweaks but with a big impact on play. Sadly I suspect many groups will ignore the sheer story potential of using and abusing the virtue/vice pairing, since there’s relatively little about it in the actual storyteller advice.

Merits are things that make your character stand out, system bits that don’t fit into already defined areas. Every character gets some to define their niche. Are you knowledgable or a Kung-fu fighter, have allies or a mentor? The list goes on, and all are nicely defined.

The Dramatic systems chapter covers the rules in detail. Time and how it is measured (Scene, chapter, round and so on) is here, as are different forms of action. what do you roll and when. One key difference from old WOD is that while willpower cans till be spent to boost success, it now gives you 3 extra dice, rather than 1 automatic success. Fans of the old system will also notice smaller pools, due to less points to spend at character creation. Dramatic failures seem to be fixed nicely though, you now only have a chance of dramtic failure is your pool of dice is reduced to 1 and you roll badly.

Combat is detailed. More so than a storytelling game need be in my opinion. Many of these rules could be condensed into “has advantage gain dice” and “is disadvantaged lose dice”. There are three types of damange (bashing, lethal, aggravated) and details on a variety of different ways to take these, from fire to toxin. Finally there’s an example of play (mainly combat). On the plus side Combat is much faster than the old WOD, reducing to hit, to damage and soak to one roll is a good thing.

Oddly though for the “Storytelling System”, there’s a whole lot of the book dedicated to tasks and combat and not much to story. Storytelling is chapter 8. The poorly thought out argument of “roll versus role” is wheeled out again, and sounds just as unconvincing as it did 10 years ago. In a game with so many rules that actively encourage drama (like virtue, vice and morality) it’s sad to see this kind of “rules prevent good story” rubbish. Although there’s some useful material, the chapter can’t seem to nail down practicalities. There’s lots of advice on what you should be doing, but not quite enough on how to achieve those results. Maybe it’s just so they can sell a storytellers book later.

So how does this all work in play? Well, for old players the higher difficulty on dice (8s not 6s as default) and lower pool is a big change. Until your ST gets the hang of giving you bonuses for situations, I forsee a lot of failure, it certainly seemed that way in my group. You could argue that this meshes with the “grim world” of the WOD, but it does mean your guy who’s supposed to be talented at something ends up looking like a dufus quite often. With this in mind it would be worth a section in the book on how often to roll for tasks and abstracting to conflict resolution. However, I suspect that once players get the hang of following virtues and vices to replenish WP, and Storytellers grasp creating stories with these in mind, the game engine will hum along nicely.

Overall: Generally the game system works and the setting is really easy to grasp since it’s a darker version of our own world. Old players will find it familiar enough, new players will find this a better intro than the old games (if they are willing to wade through tawdry prose). The same old inconsistencies are here, but putting everything in one book means less duplication across game lines. The new additions like virtue and vice pep up the system nicely. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s a step up in the elegence stakes and it does the job that most existing WOD players will expect.

Review : Conspiracy of Shadows

A fantasy game of conspiracies and driven characters.

By Keith Senkowski, Bob Goat, $21.99 Print

If the X-files had been set in the 12th century, then it might have been something like Conspiracy of Shadows. It’s a game of dark secrets that might kill your character, and secret dealings that go straight to the heart of the setting.

With one fairly major twist. What the conspiracy actually is remains the decision of each GM (and to some extent the players, since the GM can work in bits of their character backgrounds to it). So no campaign is ever the same as another. Sure, you get advice on what the conspiracy might be, but every game of Conspiracy of Shadows is going to be a unique run through a paranoid medieval world. I like this as a concept.

Setting wise, Conspiracy of Shadows gives a human-centric fantasy world called Polian, with a variety of cultures drawing on real-world history (Norderin as a Norse amalgum, for example). Chapters one and two give us details of the people and places of the setting, and give enough to hit the setting running. Each with a history, social structure and sub-cultural breakdown. We even get pronunciation guides, maps and sample names.

Character creation is a nice quick affair, and really brings home what a character’s motivations are. You start with a drive, passion and ethnicity. Passion summarizes your characters core beliefs, if you play your character true to it, you get to refresh your destiny pool between sessions (more on destiny later). Drive is the event that thrust your character into fighting the conspiracy, a sitatuon you are trying to resolve, whilst persuing your drive you get bonuses to rolls. Ethnicity gives you certain advantages based on heritage, and also helps decide how much resources and relationships(the games abstract systems for equipment and useful contacts). This is really a game where a character’s personality and heritage can make a huge diference.

There are four basic attributes, Fortitude (physical strength and Toughness), Reflex (co-ordination, swiftness and grace), Knowledge, Temperament (strength of personality), between which you divide 11 points. Each character has a profession, which is defined by dividing 17 points amongst 6 skills (there are 17 skills described, so broad abilities are the norm here). You get to write a descriptor for each of the attributes and skills, that make them unique to your character. Descriptors help the GM decide if your character should get a bonus or penalty when attempting things, and so help to nicely define a character’s niche.

Next write down endurance points (how long your character can keep going) and vitality (hit points), along with some gear. Finally you can choose to have a witchblood power, or not, depending on if you want to risk being burned as a witch…

After all the players have created characters, it’s time to join them together in a cell. Characters pool their resources and relationships to buy Allies, Realestate, Contacts, A Library, Mentors and Retainers. This mutual creation allows the PCs to come up wiht some solid shared background. Finally, the players join together to write a Kicker (as seen in Sorcerer), an event that kickstarts play. Yup, the players get to choose where the story begins, and it’s got to be in the middle of things.

Magic in Conspiracy of Shadows is divided into two types: Witchblood powers and Ritual Magic. Witchblood powers are minor abilities to spice up play, and are available to PCs. Rituals are powerful, rarer and may well be the focus of a scenario.

The system is a nice and simple 2D6 skill+Attribute mechanic. You get an extra dice if a positive descriptor comes into play, and one less if a negative one comes into play. Destiny plays an important part in COS. You get a pool of destiny points at the start of play, equal to however many negative descriptors you took for low skills/attributes. You get more during play for evoking the setting, or inventing cool details during gameplay. Destiny can be spent after rolls to boost them to successes from failures.

Conspiracy of Shadows has a nicely elegant combat system. Roll initiative for the first round based off of reflexes. For each subsequent round you move up and down initiative based on success of your actions. Endurance can also be spent to move up the initiative tree. Characters act in order of initiative, and can have as many actions as they are willing to spend endurance, until they fail in one. Combos of actions and maneavers add to your chance of success. A system that keeps combats moving, and gives them a feel of blow after blow raining down. Damage comes off your vitality, but there’s a set of wound penalties associated with how much you have left. It’s quick and flexible.
Conspiracy of Shadows has a reasonably large GM section that covers everything from fleshing out your conspiracy, through poison and disease to goons and supernatural antagonists. I’d have liked to see more versions of fleshed out conspiracies, but this is a minor quibble.

Overall: Conspiracy of Shadows has some great features, evocative art and a solid game system. It has occasional glitches (mainly typos and editing problems), but in general it provides an interesting twist on RPG fantasy.

Review : Cloak of Steel

By James Desborough, Post Mortem Studios, $10 PDF

Cloak of Steel is a game of Anime-inspired giant mecha combat in a fantasy world. It’s a PDF from RPGNOW.COM and an OGL product, so it uses lots of familiar D20-style notation. However, there’s a fair few tweaks to make for a “more cinematic” experience, more on this later.

First thing you notice is that it’s got some great manga illustrations, of a quality much akin to Exalted. For a PDF is’s got some very nice design quality and lovingly prepared maps. It’s pretty obvious that lots of effort went into the production design.  A few illustations are re-used, but for a small-press game we can forgive them that. It has PDF bookmarks, which make navigating it onscreen very easy.

Cloak of Steel is set on the world of Teirplana, and we get 70-odd page rundown of its various continents, seas, nations, gods and races. All with illustrations of characters, iconography and Cloak (mecha) types. That’s quite a lot compared to some PDFs I’ve seen, and it almost suffers from being too dense to pick up anything at first reading (there’s everything from calender and language details to ocean writeups and approprate names).

This is a background heavy setting, so it would probably need a summary for the casual player. There’s lots of setting colour to pick up and run with here as a GM: We have a flat earth, a variety of nation states vying for supremacy, some religious factions, civil wars, all ripe for possible conflicts to use in game.

Character creation is described in a solidly organised way. You can play humans or a varity of half-animal breeds. All the typical hybrids are here, but it’s good to see a game with Badgerfolk and Toadmen in too. Character creation is basically a modified D20 one, with abilities, skills and feats, but no classes. Instead of classes, you choose 15 skills that your character can learn more easily. Starting stats and their maximums are determined by age category. There’s a section of Bonuses and Detriments, background traits to tweak your character at creation. It’s nice to see this in an OGL context. Another addition to OGL is dividing hit points up by location. I’m not sure how appropriate this is to the setting, but that’s a taste thing.

Combat gets a big section, as you might expect from a game that owes something to D20 (roll, add numbers, compare with target). Characters get 3 normal actions and 3 reactive actions (dodging, parrying, reflecive attacks) a turn. The three actions make combat fast against weaker opponants, especially when combined with hero points. In addition, you can use an extra action to perform a stunt, narating a cool maneauver, rolling the two actions and gaining bonuses to the results and extra hero points. Again, reminiscent of Exalted, but that’s not a bad thing.

Rules wise vehicles, and Cloaks in particular, get a good deal of explanation. Cloaks (and their smaller cousins, Squires) get their own feats to buy, which make each suit nicely unique. There’s lots of equipment for you to arm your characters and their not-quite-mecha with. There are also rules for airships, and I’m a sucker for airships, so was pleased by their inclusion.

The Magick (yes, with a K) section has some cool spells and trinkets to play with; From golem-arm bionics to clockwork guns. Spells are briefly described with lightning and curses and all the effects you’d expect. The different styles of magic add flavour, from magic based on sacrifice to sword magic, the varieties tie in to information given in the background chapter. Spells use Mana points (a new derived attibute) to be enacted, not revolutionary, but very workable.

There are plenty of suggestions for adversaries and monster design, along with special powers for them. There’s also advice on converting from standard D20 stat blocks to the CLoak of Steel variant.

Cloak of Steel sells itself as cinematic, and whilst more cinematic than normal OGL/D20 it’s a long way off something like octaNe, since it retains a good whack of tactical-style play. It does have things like Hero points to soften some of the sharper system edges, but your 6 second rounds, hit points and modifiers are still here. Now obviously, depending on your tastes, this could be a good thing, but it clashes with my personal definition of cinematic.

There are a few places where the text slightly irked me, typical things like telling you not to do things that the rules seemingly encourage. But generally the text flowed well and leaves you with a good feel for the game and world.

Overall: Cloak of Steel is a solid RPG product. It’s pretty heavy on rules, and its tweaks on the OGL/D20 system seem solidly thought out. It’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes, but if you like anime-inspired fantasy, mecha, or D20 tweaks it’s definitely worth a look.

Review : Blood Games

A game of modern occult monster hunting.

By Clash Bowley and co, Flying Mice, $10 PDF

One of the nice things about reviewing is that you can watch companies evolve. I reviewed Flying Mice’s Starcluster a while ago, and commented on how the production values were a bit lacking. Since then they’ve obviously put in some time improving layout skills, since Blood Games is a much nicer manual. The cover art in particular is nicely evocative.

Blood Games is an Occult Horror RPG. Now this is a popular market, with the likes of White Wolf dominating and Eden Studios following close behind, it’s a hard market to stand out in. Does Blood Games stand out enough to survive? Let’s see.

Weighing in at 188 pages, Blood Games covers a fair amount of material. It takes its basic system from Starcluster, but the rules more clearly explained and there are plenty of tweaks for the setting. The essential premise is a party-based monster hunters game, where some of the hunters have funky powers. It’s set in the modern world, one that’s not too different from our own, bar the monsters of course.

It starts with some fiction. I’m generally not a fan of opening fiction, and whilst it isn’t too bad, it didn’t enthuse me to play the game. Following on we get some background material, about how magic exists but was pushed back by Nullity (a belief in science). Nothing too revolutionary (shades of Mage), but it helps frame the concept of the game’s heroes being fighters against dark forces, living on the edge of society.

As a PDF product, Blood Games makes a few suppositions about the reader, so don’t expect  explanations of what an RPG is or how you play. It launches into concepts without introducing them, making it occasionally an annoying read as you try and grasp what you missed.

The intro gives a brief overview of the character types available, and how they might mesh. Players can take the role of Hunters (like Buffy’s Slayers), Templars (Religous fighters), Cambions (which aren’t explained at this point, so could be anything), normal humans or turned (marginally good-guy) vampires. There’s also some mention of Shamen, Exorcists, Magi and Witches. Plenty of options here for findign your niche.

Next we get character creation. Decide the age of your character, roll (or points buy) some statistsics, and choose if you’re a special character or a normal human. Then we get to run our character through schooling, college and careers randomly gaining (or choosing) skills. The process is quite involved, possibly more than it needs be. It’s nowhere near as streamlined as Burning Wheel’s careers system, for example. The results should give you a solid character who’s ready for action.

Following character generation we get a summary of the path characters (those with funky powers), and how they modify the basic character you created. Hunters get boosted stats, a special luck triat and the ability to do cool wire-fu style stunts. Gambions get some vampire-like bonuses, but aren’t full vampires, though they can head that way if they aren’t strong willed. Witches, Exorcists, shamen and Magi get some magics to play with. Each has their own style, with its own game rules. The Magi follow a fairly hermetic style and can call upon angels, witches have an rustic / new-age witch approach. Exorcists get a grimoire based magic and shamen get a totem based spirit magic. Normal humans get some nice little quirks if they’ve been monster hunting and believed what they saw. Vampires aren’t really covered in this section, but get a huge chunk later in the PDF, complete with historic character generation.

The system for bloodgames is skill based. You have skills, which are percentile based, higher stats modify the appropriate skills. If you have a high skill you get rerolls. Overall, this seems to result in a high handling time on some actions, but less of a dufus factor (your skilled character doesn’t fail often). Combat wise, minute long rounds are broken down into 120 initiative phases. You can trade initiative/to hit/damage around. Damage goes to a constitution stat, which is split into four wound categories with differing levels of penalty. Nothing too revolutionary, but it works, I’d prefer something a bit more elegant personally.

Blood games has a large section on religions, with system bonuses for various religious practices. A nice idea, but one that’s bound to raise some hackles or possibly giggles from your players. The inclusion adds a different style to the game, which can be no bad thing.

There’s a nice catalogue of sample creatures, including the standard zombies,werewolves, demons and so on. Plenty of stuff here for player-characters to do battle with. Sadly there aren’t any sample characters, which I think would have been a benefit.

The GM section is a bit slim, and focuses on bringing the player character team together (it’s very focused on team-bsed play), and on alternate play styles. The alternate play styles suggested are interesting (generational play and flashbacks), but there’s not much meat on how to go about running them, just suggestions that you do.

Overall: Bloodgames has a style very similar to many 1980s games. Number crunching,  rules exceptions and percentile skills put me in mind of Palladium, the careers system is much like Traveller. As a monster hunt game it ‘s a fun romp, and the focus on religious types, mystics and other characters should give it a slightly different feel to something like Buffy or Hunter: The Reckoning. The rules system isn’t quite to my tastes though, and those used to this genre will find many things naggingly familiar.