Review : Gehenna

The end of Vampire: The Masquerade. Suitable climax or damp squib?

By White Wolf, £14.99 Book / $14.99 PDF

The end of he world as we know it…

So, after 10 years of releases White Wolf are closing shop on the World of Darkness. The time of judgment is here to sweep away (deservedly in some cases) the accumulated detritus of a decade’s metaplot. Soon there’ll be a new version, with a new continuity…

Gehenna is the end of the world as seen by the protagonists of Vampire: The Masquerade. Well, more precisely it’s four different endings and some advice on how to go about making it really good for your players. Some spoilers may follow, so if you plan to play, you might want to read something else.

First off, it’s a nice book. Hardback and with a cover that evokes the events presented within. Illustrations inside are also excellent. It looks like they went to town with the last book of the line.

The early parts of the book are general advice on Gehenna and how to use and abuse it. There’s also a general who’s doing what and to whom, and which antediluvians are involved. It also introduces the concepts that will spill through all the scenarios, including the Withering, the failure of the curse of Caine, a nice plot device for making seemingly insurmountable enemies weaker. There are also some letters between various metaplot characters that add some nice colour.

The first scenario is called Wormwood, and of all those presented is probably the truest to the original premise to Vampire. It’s a story about humanity and what it means, and striving for some sort of redemption. The scenario will involve a lot of talking, a heavy amount of angst, and maybe a bit of salvation. The character’s are drawn to a church and while the rest of vampire kind is expunged by the rays of the red star, they get to prove their worthiness and humanity. Great stuff, but not for everybody.

Scenario number two is a bit of a mix. It involves Caine and Lilith. Lilith turns up on your PCs turf and tries to draw out Caine in order to punish him for his sins. The scenario is quite abstract, and is vague as to its purpose in places. To my mind it would be harder work to get players interested in it. Part of this stems from the way the scenes are described. The scene where characters fight off Liliths minions at the docks is a good example, there’s not the motivation there should be. Still, if you like the Lilith mythology this scenario is brimming with it.

The third scenario is the Metaplot one. It’s full of signature characters and railroading. If you enjoyed Transylvania Chronicles then it would make the ideal climax to that series. It’s a good story, but how much your players could actually affect events is limited as written. If you just want to go along for the ride, then it’s an entertaining romp, and involves the masquerade being torn asunder, the PCs hunting for clues to various antediluvians and ending up at the city of Gehenna in a confrontation with the awakened ancients.

Scenario four is called the Crucible of God, and features a Gehenna where the antediluvians war on each other. Again the masquerade is torn asunder (by your player’s characters, nice) and what follows is a series of abstract scenarios dealing with humanities reaction, the war that ensues and the way in which the different antediluvians approach it. There are also a few set pieces thrown in. There’s a lot more opportunity for PC influence over events here too, rather than just witness them.

Chapter 6 is about storytelling and is full of sensible advice (like making sure your PCs are center stage). In fact it’s better than much of the storytelling advice in other Vampire books, and really tries to hammer home the themes of the game and how they should be approached at the end. It’s followed by a couple of appendices, one on characters who appear in the scenarios and one on how to use (or not) Caine.

Overall: What’s nice about this book is that it has something for everybody. If you like your Vampire to be moody and angst filled, or rowdy and katana wielding, if you like metaplot or loathe it, there’s something for everybody here. Obviously, this broad scope also means that there’ll likely be something in here that you don’t like too. But the ideas here are well worth looking at for anybody who wants to end their vampire game with a bang.

Review : 101 Fantasy Adventure Seeds

A set of scenario ideas for your typical fantasy game.

James Desborough, Portmortem Studios, $6.50 PDF

If ever there was a candidate for “doing exactly what it says on the tin”, then this is it. 101 Fantasy Adventure Seeds is a series of scenario ideas for fantasy games. No stats (since it’s not tied to a particular system), not much in the way of illustration (but not marred by this I might add), just ideas. Lots of them.

101 Fantasy Adventure Seeds is a PDF download, available at RPGNOW.com. It’s produced by Post Mortem studios, the publishing imprint of James Desborough, who did most of the work on the supplement himself. Considering that this is the case, he should be applauded. At $6.50 (about three quid) it won’t break the bank either.

If as GM you’ve ever been at a loss for ideas five minutes before a game (you know you have), and have needed ideas quickly, then this PDF is for you. It’s a series of scenarios for generic fantasy games, so here you’ll find all your staples of goblins, princes, merchants, vampires, dragons and so on. What you’ll also find is an entertainingly written set of adventure seeds. So if you’ve run out of ideas, get that nail file ready, since you’ll find it easy enough to remove the serial numbers from these and insert them into your game.

The tone of the writing is spot on. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but is helpful, amusing and friendly. It’s the type of book I’d recommend for a newbie GM, but sadly its PDF status will probably limit it to more experienced roleplayers, who won’t get the full benefit from it. That said, it would still be a handy resource for any busy GM.

Each scenario is a page long, so if you’re looking for detailed ideas then you won’t find it here. Despite this, each adventure idea is given a different spin in the space available. Every one has a series of twists to help spice it up, along with an idea of where to take things after resolution. Some also have a couple of general suggestions to help you along with running a game based on the ideas. I won’t detail any of the adventure ideas here, since they vary in approach quite a lot.

Generally the quality of idea is pretty good, and many have a nice moral twist applied to them that thoughtful groups will lap up. These occasional morality plays make the ideas stand out from other sets of adventure seeds I’ve read. Too often fantasy scenarios are black and white, but here we get a fair few morally grey areas to play in.

Are there any problems? Well, the copy editing is a bit ropey in places, and some sentences run on a bit. Considering the author did everything himself I think he can be excused these, since many more “professional” publications suffer from the exact same problems. Also, with 101 ideas to choose from there’s going to be a few that you like and a few that you loathe, but that’s just ‘cos there’s so much choice.

Overall: If you never have a bad day when the inspiration fails to flow, then you won’t need this. If you have plenty of experience as a Ref/DM/GM/ST you probably could come up with these yourself given time. If time is short, and you need a kickstart for a game, then 101 fantasy adventure ideas is a good place to begin.

Review : The Burning Wheel

A fantasy roleplaying system that tries some different ideas.

By Luke Crane, BWHQ , $15 + P&P

The Burning wheel is a fantasy RPG of epic heroes, dwarves, orcs and elves. Wait, don’t leave yet! Just because it’s well trodden territory, it doesn’t mean there’s not some life in the old stalwart yet. Burning Wheel certainly tries to give the most popular arena in RPGs a kick up the butt. Does it succeed? Well, read on.

The Burning Wheel consists of two books, half sized and is available over the Internet from its author Luke Crane. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I helped Luke (who’s an all-round nice guy) with his web site, so this review may not be entirely un-biased. BW is an amazing deal for what you get, considering that most RPGs cost £20 for a main book, to get two for £12.50 (including postage) is a great deal.

The first book details the system. It’s an engaging read, largely because the style is chatty, but also because there are lots of helpful boxouts explaining things, and icons to alert you to possible troublesome areas. The layout is neat and clean, something that more expensive RPGs can’t always claim.

The system uses dice pools of normal D6s, results of 4 or more are successes (unless you are supernaturally skilled, in which case you might use 3s or 2s). You roll skills (and sometimes stats), but no rolling for every detail, just the main thing you want to achieve. The book makes sure to advise against the “roll until you fail” style of GMing.

BW has a number of cool tweaks that push it above the D&D clone. The first is its concepts of Beliefs, Instincts, Traits and Artha. When you create a character, you note down core beliefs and things that are instinctive to your character. If you follow these, you get Artha, which is a plot point style reward. You can use if for all sorts of bonuses in game. A nice instant roleplaying reward. Traits are character foibles that can help your character out in a tricky situation.

So, where’s the innovation? Well let’s start with Burning Wheel’s scripted combat system. Before each round you set out which actions you’ll perform, and these then go off in order, as do everybody else’s. This makes for a different experience to more traditional systems, with a hectic, nicely descriptive and unpredictable edge. Fights tend to be cautious affairs too, and requires a good understanding of the state of mind of your opponent (so the GM had better be a good narrator). There’s a nice full example in the Appendix to help get to grips with it.

BW’s other big plus is its character creation system, which works through character generation rather like a hybrid of Traveler and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (though less random than both). Your character progresses through Lifepaths, accumulating skills and traits (cool little add-ons). Characters build up a feeling of depth through their past. A good system for creating a character if you have no predefined ideas, and flexible enough that you can get what you want. If you like a solid grounding to your characters, then this is the system for you. Lifepaths are provided for Humans, Elves, Dwarves and Orcs, more are available online.

The magic system is based on a series of elemental themed spells. There are plenty of options here, though many are familiar fantasy stalwarts. I was less impressed here than in other areas of the game. There are also some simple and abstract faith rules, allowing for priestly characters to call on their gods.

BW is fairly loose as far as setting goes. Most of it is implied from the lifepaths rather than set out. Essentially it’s a generic Tolkien style sword and sorcery setting. Obviously, this means that if you’re looking for a different system to change the flavour of an existing D&D game it’s well placed. For other settings, less so. It does have some lovely tweaks that make it lean heavily towards a classic Middle Earth style setting, such as the rules for elven grief that add personality and balance at the same time.

An important thing to note about BW is that it has a lot of support on its website. New lifepaths, creatures, spells, alternative rules and essays are all available. There’s a goodly level of support in the forums for new players too, and these are also a great place to see just what other people are doing with the game.

Burning Wheel is an example of how much difference a divergent approach to system can make to a roleplaying experience. It’s well presented, fun to read, and different enough to stand apart.

Review : Starcluster

A PDF Sci-Fi RPG with a retro style.

By Clash Bowley et al, Flying Mice, $7 PDF

Starcluster is a PDF download from Flying Mice LLC and available at rpgnow.com. It comes as 8 different files, each focusing on an aspect of the game. It’s not made obvious which file to start with, though “playing the game” seemed like a good place to begin.

The layout is basic, some documents are single column, some double. The text feels dense, something not helped by the lack of space between paragraphs in some of the files. The layout across the PDFs is inconsistent too, which doesn’t help the game feel unified. The organisation seems somewhat random in places as well, I couldn’t work out why details on spaceport types were tagged onto the playing the game PDF. Illustrations are a scattered throughout and are serviceable, but not inspiring. The cover art is the best, and has a slightly abstracted feel.

There’s a basic intro, but other than that Starcluster pretty much throws you in at the deep end with rules, so unless you’ve played an RPG before you will end up lost. Of course selling from RPGNow, there’s little chance any purchaser will not have played before, but I wouldn’t give this PDF to a new-to-gaming player, it makes a few too many assumptions for that. There’s no real GM or player advice beyond how to build a character and the core mechanics.

Character creation is a random/careers hybrid, and based on a career path in a similar way to Traveller. You get to choose your schooling and career, and can enter any that you meet the requirements for. Every two years of charatcer life you can roll to see if you’re character is promoted. Every 4 years, starting at age 34, there’s a chance that your stats will start to drop due to ageing.

The basic rules are, fortunately, pretty simple. It’s percentile skills with modifiers. Stats exist, and add to 5% to relevant skills for each point over 7 (and base stats start at between 2-12 randomly rolled). Not exactly revolutionary, but it works, I suppose. Combat is based on a minute long round divided up into 120 initiatives. Characters can act on their initiative roll, and if they are particularly badass get extra actions 10 initiatives later. Combat is notably more likely to end up with one side unconscious rather than dead, which may not appeal to everybody, but according to the book will help GMs who want to run “you get knocked out and captured” plots.

There are rules for space battles between starships too, these seem to turn most battles into slogging matches as each ship tries to disable its opponents shields first and then start knocking out essential systems. More Star Trek than Star Wars.

Starcluster likes its tables. There’s a table of weapons, tables of skills, tables of professions, tables of equipment and weapons, tables of times it takes to get from A to B. You get the picture. If you don’t like referencing tables in character creation and play, then Starcluster will not be for you.

Starcluster has a vague setting. It’s space, there are some alien races (mostly based on humans seeded across the galaxy by mysterious aliens), there’s a confederacy of species, and they trade. There’s an interdicted world called Jalan where there have Psionics. It needs more of a setting I think, something to differentiate it from the other – similar – Sci-Fi RPGs. More precisely I came away unsure of what it was characters should be doing. In this regard Starcluster, like many Sci-Fi games, is a victim of the openness of the setting. You can do anything, so what do you do? There are a number of supplements available, so hopefully these solve this issue, but you may have to fork out more cash for them.

Overall: Starcluster is a blast from the past. It reminds me of the RPGs of yesteryear. Most specifically, Traveller. Things like random stat generation, chart heavy rules and tech levels that give it that feel. Really, it doesn’t seem to do that much more than any other SF roleplaying game. It isn’t bad at what it does, but its inconsistent layout and organisation don’t help it. It really needs the touch of an editor who wasn’t immersed in the products creation, and some more consistent design. So, promising, but I’d wait for a 2nd edition…

Note:A newer, single PDF version, with rules clarifications is now available.

Review : D20 Mecha Compendium

A sourcebook of mecha settings for D20.

By Dream Pod 9,

The D20 Mecha Compendium is a book of big robots, mechs, and similar creations for use in D20 games. Produced by Dreampod 9, who has a long history of providing quality mecha related products, the book is 160 pages of stats and background material. The layout is excellent, as I’ve come to expect from DP9, with plenty of manga style illustrations (though some are skimmed from earlier products).

The book is split into four chapters, the first covers the basics of mecha in D20. The other three cover settings and stats for fantasy, modern, or futuristic games. Each of the setting sections includes a brief overview of a setting, followed by some stat blocks for the mecha in question. There’s also advice on customizing the ideas to your own setting, and using them outside the genre suggested.

The first chapter skims through the way mecha work, and lets us know that full details are available in the Guardians of Order product D20 Mecha. That said, enough rules are given that you can run a basic mecha campaign with just this book, you just have a limited number of vehicle modifications. Since the book is based solely around pre-designed systems, I don’t see this as a particular issue, but you will probably need the other book to create your own machines of doom.

Chapter 2 is about mecha in fantasy games. It gives advice on why you might want to use them, and some sample settings. The first setting has the mecha as divine artifacts representing aspects of the primal forces (fire, war and so on), with lesser mecha being craftsman created servants of the divine. Quite fun, though not really enough information to run a campaign in the world. The next setting details golemsuits, mecha created like golems. These are pretty dull really, and have the least inspiring illustrations in the book. The beast lords follow this trend, being animalistic mecha in a fantasy world. The gem of the fantasy chapter are the coalsuits of the Cities and Empire setting, which have a nice steampunk flavour.

In chapter 3 we get modern and alternate history mecha. A chance for DP9 to do D20 stats for their Gear Krieg game. Gear Krieg is a nice pulp-ish setting, and the mechs have a suitably retro feel to them. The setting info is sparse, but enjoyable. In the Phoenix Rising setting that follows we get some Metal Gear Solid style mechs. This is a nice little overview of a slightly into the future world with global corporations and power-suited terrorists. I’d have liked to see more detail on it. Great Machine Decander rounds off the modern settings, and is a modern setting where discoveries of a lost civilization have lead to advances in technology.

The last chapter is about future worlds, and includes the DP9 Jovian Chronicles and Heavy Gear setting, along with a few others. The Terra Nova setting for Heavy Gear gets a solid introduction, and may inspire readers to delve deeper. I’ve always liked this setting, and the overview gives a good feel for the political climate. The Jovian Chronicles is a solar system based campaign with large flying mecha suits, less gritty than Heavy Gear. The chapter is rounded off by a two earth vs the aliens mecha settings, one of which has a passing similarity to robotech.

Overall: If you want to move your Heavy gear, Grear Krieg or Jovian Chronicles game to D20, then this book has the basics of what you’ll need. If you want some stat blocks and pretty mecha pictures for a fantasy or modern game, then it may help too. Unfortunately background information is too sparse for the book to be really useful. More a setting taster book than anything else, I’d have preferred fewer settings with more depth of coverage.