Review : Blood Games

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.

Review : Gehenna

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

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

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.

Finding your niche

Roleplaying groups are often like the A-Team, or maybe in some cases like a manufactured pop band. There's the clever character, the charismatic character, the mad one, and the tough one. Sometimes there's the sporty one or the sensitive one.

It's a matter of niche protection really. Everybody who plays wants a certain amount of "screentime", and the easiest way to get it is to fill a particular niche. The key to fun in games is often balancing the amount of time a particular character (and by extension their player) is influencing events. If a character gets too little screentime, the player feels hard done by. If one player character gets too much, then you have the opposite problem, everybody feels like they're in that player's shadow. Both states are frustrating.

Lots of games come with a way of making sure that everybody gets a chance to shine. Games with classes work well for balancing screentime. If you can easily tell a character's specialisation, then giving them screentime becomes easier. In D&D you can build lots of traps and locked rooms into dungeons so that a player with a thief gets lots to do. Of course classes also lead to problems when two players go for the same choice, they inevitably end up having to redefine their character to find a new niche. In general though, when your roleplaying environment is the Dungeon, and everybody has a clearly defined role, everybody can shine.

With more modern games, where players get free reign in character creation, it's actually more difficult to balance things. That free reign can give you a handful of character whose defining stats are practically identical, how's the GM supposed to guess when you want the spotlight? Ironically, the distaste of many modern games for min-maxing actually stops grabbing of niches. Such games will claim that min-maxing breaks "game balance", but what other balance is there than equal screentime? If you condemn your character to mediocrity, you'll never get that screentime. If everybody is anonymous the GM has to work harder to discover the thing that will force each character into the limelight. As if they didn't have enough to do anyway.

Fortunately many games come to the rescue with splats, broad archetypes like the Vampire clans, which can help define niches. Such constructs are no different to classes on a basic level, they give you an obvious place to start when thinking about the character, making it easier for the GM to work out when to give you the spotlight. Particular genres - modern action being a good example - thrive on such archetypes. That's why the A-Team is a good model for such circumstances, each character has a well defined role within the story. Thus every player gets an opportunity to be the one who's doing something cool.

However, if you conform too much to an archetype you end up having a cardboard cutout character, and if the game is trying to produce original and thought provoking stories, such characters can jar. The problem in this case is that the tools you are using to define your character's uniqueness don't work with the aim of the game. Using skills as unique points will only take you so far. I remember a game where one character was often referred to as "The investigation device", because that's all they were in game terms. They were only ever wheeled out when something needed investigating. The player had defined his niche, but not in a way that suited the game, and the character's screentime, and his enjoyment, suffered for it. What the character needed was personality.

When the story is the thing, the best way to define your niche is no longer through abilities, but through motivation and beliefs. The key is finding the drive behind the character, and making it shine through to the GM. Sure, anybody can have the same stats and skills as your character, but only your character is seeking the murderer of his dead brother. Motivators like this tell the GM when it is you want to have the limelight and what story you want to tell. Games like The Riddle of Steel, Sorcerer and my own Lost Gods actually give you tools to state, on the character sheet, what it is that will drag your character into centrestage. Even if no such system features are present then a well worded character concept can aid you here. Know what defines the characters attitude and desires. That way you can get that great scene where you confront your brother's murderer, and get that protagonising choice of how to deal with them.

So, depending on the game, how you define your niche will vary. The important thing is to think about it before the game, and make sure you communicate it to other players (especially the GM), so that players don't end up treading on each other's toes. Choose if you're going to be the strong one, the diplomatic one or the proud aloof guy driven by rage and advertise it. Just be careful that your character isn't the anonymous one, or your fun will suffer.