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 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.

Review : Starcluster

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

Starcluster is a PDF download from Flying Mice LLC and available at 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 : Heartquest: Diceless

Michael Hopcroft et al, Seraphim Gaurd, $8 PDF

I thought I'd seen every possible genre of RPG. Then I was asked to review Heartquest: Diceless. Heartquest is set in the world of Shoujo Manga. That's Japanese girl's comics. Now to me this seems like a bit of a niche market. More to the point I can't see it appealing as a genre to the average gamer. However, as a game that tries to broaden the scope of the RPG medium, Heartquest certainly should be applauded. I have a problem with reviewing Heartquest though, it's not the game, it's the image of a bearded overweight gamer geek pretending to be a Japanese schoolgirl, and somehow it isn't a pleasant one.

Anyway that aside, Heartquest: Diceless is the diceless version of Seraphim Guard's previous Fudge-based Heartquest product. It uses the Active Exploits system from Politically Incorrect Games. The system is pretty good as far as diceless ones go, similar to Nobilis in some ways, in that you have certain abilities (Fitness, Awareness, Creativity, and Reasoning) that define what you can do, and other stats and skills that can be spent boost your ability when you really need to succeed. This works well enough, and avoids the need for too many arbitrary GM decisions. If you want you can pretty much guarantee success when it matters to your character, at a cost of possible failure later. So nice and flexible really. It's slightly marred by constantly using special symbols for things rather than giving them names. You may find yourself wondering what that little bomb symbol means. These rules are free to download, so check them out at PIGames for more detail

So what do you get in the Heartquest setting PDF? Well production wise it's a nice layout, and the text is in an easy to read prose style. Illustrations are all very Manga, with some being slightly better than others. They give a solid feel for the setting though, and you can't ask for more than that. The PDF weighs in at 84 pages.

Early chapters deal with character creation specific to Heartquest, basic roleplaying information, and a discussion of what Shoujo Manga is. Character creation is nice and simple, with minimal difficulty in creating the right kind of character. There's lots of traits and skills listed, though these occasionally fall into the trap of not actually telling you how they affect things at a system level. For example, the serious illness gimmick says that you may hurt yourself if over exerted, but doesn't tell you how this might be decided or implemented. There's a short section on designing powers for the more super-normal campaign types. While it's useful as far as it goes, I would have preferred more sample powers.

Next we get an overview of the different sub-genres the game is aimed at (Teen Romance, Magic Girl, Historical Romance and Out of This World). Teen romance is soap opera style romantic stories, magic girl is heroines with supernatural weirdness, historic romance is self explanatory, and out of this world is Manga space opera romance. Well enough explained that I, as somebody who doesn't know the genre, could grasp the concepts.

One notable problem with the book is that there's not really enough advice on how to encourage the style of story that Heartquest wants to create. Sure there's talk of teen romance in Japan from an information point of view, but there's little practical advice on how to deal with it in play. There's plenty of setting examples and general GM advice, but the text rarely comes out and says "this is how you achieve this". An experienced GM could probably work this out from implication, but romance is difficult to get right in an RPG, and I expected more from a product that focuses on it. I suspect a newbie GM or one coming from a Dungeoneering background, might find it hard to get their head around things.

That said, the sample settings are comprehensive, and give a good idea of what each of the different styles of game can look like, and are filled with copious sample characters. These should easily inspire suitably minded players. We have Sendai Academy, a school based teen drama with plenty of angst. There's also Ghost Tamer Myaki, a heroine fighting the demon king, with a cute ghost dog sidekick. Finally there is Steel Heidi, an American written roleplaying setting about a Japanese Manga set in medieval Germany. It works better than it sounds, and has some of the better illustrations. It's a courtly intrigue with swashbuckling highlights, and is probably the setting existing gamers would be more drawn to.

The final chapter is a comprehensive list of things to watch and read for inspiration. I found myself recognising some of these, so maybe the genre isn't as niche as I thought.

Overall: Heartquest won't appeal to everyone, but it does what it does quite well. If you're interested in Manga, or fancy trying your hand at a game that isn't death and mayhem, then you might want to check it out.