Review : The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen

A game of very tall tales.

By James Wallis, Hogshead Publishing, £4.99

So tell us Baron, how did you change the face of roleplaying with only a 24 page book?

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is not quite a roleplaying game as you might know it. It’s a parlor game. A game of tall tales and astounding adventures. Players take on the role of pompous aristocrats trying to outdo each other in the telling of outrageous stories. These stories can be about anything, like the time you tried to climb mount Everest with only a toothpick and a rubber duck, or when you defeated the Belgian army single handed. If you are familiar with the Terry Gilliam film about Munchausen (or the book from which both the film and game take inspiration), you’ll know exactly the type of thing expected.

It’s only a small twenty four page book, but it is probably one of the most entertaining games you will ever buy. And you should buy it as quickly as possible, because Hogshead, the company that published it, has just ceased trading.

The hard part about reviewing this game is that the game itself is very quick to explain, and elegant in it’s simplicity. It is as simple as “One person tells a story, and the others try and interrupt them”. I could explain the rules in more detail, but that would mean you wouldn’t need to buy it. And I think you should. Like all the best simple ideas, the creators deserve credit in the form of cold hard cash. All stories start with another player asking “So Baron, tell us, how did you…”, and proceed in whichever insanely bizarre route the narrator wishes.

The best thing about the book is the writing style. It conveys perfectly how the game should be played, and the spirit in which it should be taken. It takes you through the steps you need to play (Character Creation is as simple as writing you character’s name and rank), through the rules of play, examples of play, and suggestions for scenarios (4 pages worth of possible starting lines). It’s also written in the style of Baron Munchausen, so it’s filled with wildly exaggerated anecdotes and weird digressions, which is exactly how the stories you tell in the game should be told.

Overall: An easy game to learn, which has unlimited possibilities for stories. It’s fun, lots of fun. Ideal for playing over Christmas, while mildly (or very) drunk.

Interview : Contested Ground Studios

We talk to Malcolm Craig of Contested Ground Studios about a/state, a game of urban SF horror

Contested Ground Studios have been making a bit of a buzz on the net of late. The arrival of a/state lite, a demo version of their soon to be released game a/state, has caused a good deal of interest. In an effort to find out more about this new company and their product, we tracked down Malcolm Craig and asked him to enlighten us about the game, cities, and inspiration…

First off, tell us a bit about yourselves and Contested Ground Studios. Why did you decide to take the plunge into publishing your own roleplaying game?

Well, Contested Ground Studios is essentially four people based up in Falkirk in sunny Scotland (which may go some way to explaining why the weather in a/state is so terrible). There’s me, Malcolm Craig, who writes stuff. Paul Bourne is our in-house digital artist, graphic designer and bass player, John Wilson is our Internet guru/business manager and Iain McAllister is our editor-in-chief (and he’s also developing our next big release, Mob Justice). a/state would be nothing without the involvement of these guys. There’s also a load of other people who have given advice, time and encouragement to us. James Wallis of Hogshead Games was, and is, an invaluable source of information and support.

Then there’s friends such as Mike Beck (who came up with the “You will never forget The City. But The City will forget you” tag line), Justin Matters, Janet Pashley, Liam O’Connor, Baz Johnston and Brian Pickles who all helped is in one way or another. And I must give a big mention to Rab Robertson, our unpaid proofreader and pointer-out of my grammatical errors. Rab has done sterling work on a/state and without him, it would be a far less decent product.

It’s a question I keep asking myself: “Why the hell are we doing this?” The answer is simply a desire to actually produce something that gamers will think is worth buying. We started out by doing a website where a/state stuff was posted and you could download information about the setting. Back then, it was essentially systemless, but after some very positive and encouraging feedback, we thought: “Why not? Maybe we could actually publish this?” It all just snowballed from there, leading to panic attacks, cold sweats and moments of existential self-doubt.

Describe a/state without using the words balance, playability, storytelling, realistic or unrivalled.

Gothic horror hard-SF. Perhaps a rather odd combination of speculative fiction types, but ones I think work rather well together. As the writer, I like to think that a/state is an immersive, intricate, persuasively
detailed setting full of mystery, incident, detail and character. Not just character in the human sense, but also in the character of The City itself. One reviewer rather interestingly noted this, saying that The City was a character in itself, one which had to be interacted with.

This is satisfying, as it’s something I actually set out to achieve.So many RPGs have brilliant settings which fall down because, although the setting may be beautifully detailed, it never actually feels like you’re interacting with the environment itself. a/state also has fairly socialist leanings, which is more of a reflection of my own political views than anything else. The theme of social injustice features strongly in the game, shown in the pitiful state in which most people find themselves.

Not that I’m for a moment trying to foist any kind of agenda onto people, it is after all just a game. Another strong element of a/state, perhaps the most important element in the game, is the belief in hope and the ability of people to do good despite the crushing horror they find themselves surrounded by. I realise that’s all a bit heavy for an RPG. Oh well, back to the drawing board (or laptop, in this case).

The background sections of a/state lite have a nice feel of claustrophobic city living. Is there anything you’re particularly pleased with in the setting?

I’m just amazed it’s all come together. On a more serious note, I’m personally pleased with the environment of The City itself, the way that we’ve managed to produce an internally coherent and consistent setting. Cities are fascinating places, which is one of the many driving forces behind a/state. The way that history piles up in a very visual manner in a city, with gothic churches standing next to concrete towerblocks, brick tenements alongside glass offices and so on. Then, there’s the horrible fascination that the underbelly of urban life holds: what is hidden in old cellars, what lies up a dark alley, where ancient tunnels lead and all that sort of thing.

Cities are at once both entrancing and repelling creations. The original idea for a/state actually took shape on a train journey from Billericay in Essex into central London. As the train headed deeper into London, you could see ancient foundations and tunnels alongside the tracks, rows of brick houses squashed up next to concrete blocks. It made me wonder about how it had all evolved and accreted over the centuries.

Well, actually what I probably thought at the time was “Wonder if I should write a game set in a huge city?” and the more philosophical elements came later or were made up by me in an attempt to give myself an air of completely unjustified intellectual credibility.

One of the common problems with RPGs is having to know too much of the background before you start playing. How much of the a/state background would a starting player need to know?

Difficult question to answer, but I don’t think that a player would need to have an in-depth knowledge of the setting before starting out. In truth, it’s probably better that their knowledge is limited so that this enhances
the feeling of mystery and the unknown. Most people in The City live in a similar situation to people in medieval times, rarely travelling more than a mile or two from their place of birth. Knowledge of other
places is limited, insularity, folklore and superstition are rife. As an example, many people in The City believe it is limitless, extending on forever. So while this is not true, it has become the truth in their minds. As a player, it would be helpful to know about the area in which you live and work, but beyond that a detailed knowledge of The City isn’t really required for beginning play. On the other hand, I do think we ask quite a lot of the GM. The setting is fairly intricate and complex and requires the GM to invest time in reading the book and having an understanding of The City. However, I’d like to think that we produced something that is interesting to read and would provide an enjoyable experience for the GM.

Reading the lite version, I was vaguely reminded of both SLA Industries and Perdido Street Station…

I think SLA Industries is one of the most interesting games to have appeared on the RPG scene ever. I take my hat off to Dave Allsop and the guys behind it, as it’s always been a game which has seriously impressed me. To be honest, one of the considerations when writing a/state was not to be like SLA. As for Perdido Street Station, I can only say that it’s a fantastically impressive novel, as is all of China Mievilles work. I first read PSS after doing a lot of the development for a/state and was concerned that there might be similarities.

However, China being the very nice chap that he is, assured me that any similarities were purely superficial (and that he liked the game, which was nice!).

What have been the main influences for the setting? Are there any books that you’d recommend reading when looking for inspiration for a/state scenarios?

The main influences for the setting are many and varied. Some authors I’d like to single out are Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Mervyn Peake, Cordwainer Smith, Jeff Noon, J G Ballard, Iain Banks, M John Harrison, Gene Wolfe, Steve Aylett and, latterly, China Mieville. The list could go on and on. I do have a long list of novels which have provided inspiration in some way, but it runs to a couple of pages and would make extremely boring viewing. However, a few books which I would recommend are: Great Expectations and Hard Times by Charles Dickens,The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad,The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake,The Bridge by Iain Banks,The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer SmithThe Island of Dr Death And Other Stories And Other Stories (no, that really is the title of the book) by Gene Wolfe,Perdido Street Station, King Rat and The Scar by China Mieville,The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss,Dhalgren by Samuel Delany and A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick

Cinema has also exerted an influence on the game. Movies such as Jacobs Ladder, Avalon, Ghost In The Shell (obvious, but brilliant), Kiss Me Deadly, Hell Is A City, Amadeus, Great Expectations, Angel Heart, the list could run and run. I was amazed by the cinematography of Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon when I first saw it (even if it was on a slightly fuzzy video copy), visually it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in years. I really do take my hat off to Oshii-san for producing some truly memorable visual experiences such as Avalon, Ghost In The Shell and Jin Roh. There a lot of seriously underrated films out there that contributed in some way to a/state: the previously mentioned Jacobs Ladder and Angel Heart are two exceptionally fine psychological horror films which never seem to get the credit they deserve. In films and games, horror shouldn’t just be about slashed corpses, nasty monsters and faceless men with axes, it’s all about suggestion, uncertainty and mood. The best way to produce horror in a game environment is through fear of the unknown or by subtly altering the familiar to produce unease.

Non-fiction works have also been a big influence on the setting. Ones which I’d particularly highlight are Antony Beevor’s magnificent Stalingrad, Roy Porter’s Mind Forg’d Manacles (which deals with the pre-Victorian treatment of mental illness in England) and Karl Taro Greenfeld’s seminal work on the Japanese underworld Speed Tribes (although this one is semi-fictional). Stalingrad is one of the best evocations of horror, degradation, brutality and courage that I’ve ever read. The conflict on the Eastern Front during WWII is, to my mind, one of the most horrific and scarcely believable episodes in human history. The sheer brutality of the fighting, the awful conditions and utter hellishness of it all really boggles the mind. Yet, in the midst of all this terror, there were examples of the greatest courage, honour, dignity and self-sacrifice.

I found it a very affecting book and in some ways I’ve tried to grab hold of the feeling evoked by it in a/state. Like the Eastern Front, The City is full of horror, despair and cruelty, yet within all of that there is hope and goodness. I wouldn’t recommend Stalingrad as light bedtime reading but it is a history book that is accessible, readable and emotive I’d don’t know if I’d particularly recommend any works when thinking of a/state scenarios, I think that anything that the reader enjoys and feels would fit could be used. However, I’ll now completely contradict myself and say that anything by Michael Marshall Smith (particularly Only Forward, Spares and One Of Us) are great sources of ideas. As are short story collections like the classic Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (edited by Bruce Sterling) and (believe it or not) Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories! No, really, read them!

Fog shrouded London, crime, beggars, thieves, industrialisation, men with hats, pipe smoking, they’ve got the lot!

Tell us a bit about the system, how did you go about designing it? What were your priorities?

System was one of the big bugbears when it came to the game, as I’m mainly a background and settings kind of guy, rather than an infrastructure designer. We could have gone for a generic, open source system such as EABA or D20, but in the end we felt that doing our own system which integrated with the game world was a better bet. I’m not going to go off on a big anti-D20 rant, but the homogenisation of the games industry worries me somewhat. I personally don’t think that D20 is appropriate to all the settings it’s been applied to, with knock-on effects for the game itself. While, when running games, system has never been a huge thing for me, a good, appropriate system does add a certain ‘feel’ to a game. For example, hard-SF games just don’t feel right if you have to use D6’s. Whereas percentile based systems are ideal. It’s just a feeling that you get from the system, like with Shadowrun I always had the feeling I was playing D&D because of the number of D6’s flying about. In the rush to latch on to the undoubted marketing advantages of D20, some games are missing out on the advantages that a specifically tailored system can offer.

Now, all the above isn’t to say that the a/state system is perfect in any way, shape or form. The priority was always to produce something which enhanced the game, fitted in with the setting and was, most importantly, simple enough that it didn’t interfere. The rules presented in a/stateLite are a very stripped out version of the main rules, but in essence they present what the system is all about: simplicity and ease of use.

Which design decisions did you have the most problems with? Which are you most pleased with?

Combat was a big thing. It had to be deadly enough to give a feeling of realism and convince players that fighting was not always the best option, but also not too deadly, as you don’t want players dropping dead every single time someone punches them. Striking that balance was difficult. In the end, although injuries are dealt with in fairly abstract terms, it works well enough. I’m really pleased with the full character generation system, as it allows full, rounded, interesting characters, not just rows of numbers. I’ve always admired the Chaosium system used in Call of Cthulhu for it’s simplicity and elegance, so in real terms I was attempting to achieve a similar result when designing the a/state system.

How much has the game evolved since it’s original form?

A hell of a lot is the short answer! The original idea was for a mega-urban hard SF cyberpunk game set in a continent-spanning city, sort of the ultimate cyberpunk game. This gradually metamorphosed into a darker, much more gothic setting which eventually became a/state (after being called Shift, The City and a few other things along the way). In the end, I think a/state has become much more than the original concept, slightly more original (which sounds dead pretentious) than the rather tired and dated cyberpunk ideal. a/state now combines the best and worst of human existence. Horrific places such as concentration camps, insane asylums and slums find their place but alongside the great things than people can do as well. I’ve tried to avoid the black and white, good vs evil distinctions which you find in some games.

Which RPGs do you enjoy, and which have influenced you when writing this one?

Oooh! Let’s see now – The first RPG I ever played was Call of Cthulhu, a game which I still think is one of the best RPGs ever written. I think the adventure was called ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’ or something like that. Then the same night, I played my second ever RPG which was the much-maligned Twilight:2000 1st Edition. Twilight got a bit of an unfair rep as a stomping ground for macho survivalist fantasies, but we tended to play things on a more human level, dealing with the effects of the Twilight War, how people coped and suchlike, rather than just running round with M-16s laying waste to the Polish countryside.

That having been said, hard SF was always a favourite of mine and the now defunct GDWs 2300AD was always my favourite to run. More recently, I’ve enjoyed Blue Planet, which I find to be a highly original, innovative and refreshing take on traditional cyberpunk tropes. Very recently I’ve started running a few one off games of Cthulhu again, which has proved to be most enjoyable. There’s also a lot of games that were never particularly popular which I quite like, such as Living Steel, CORPS and Hawkmoon (anyone remember that?).

What have you got planned for the future of the game?

Many, many things. Our firstmajor supplement for the game is tentatively titled ‘Avenues & Alleyways‘ which will provide information on further city areas, maps, NPCs, locations and so on. Big chunks of it are already written in fact, which is quite handy from a production point of view. Beyond that, we’ve got a whole slate of supplements that we’d like to produce to support a/state such as adventure packs, campaign packs, more information on the macrocorps and other organisations, perhaps more on The Shifted and so on an so forth. There are some big mysteries inherent in the setting and small parts of these will be revealed as time goes on. However, it’s really up to players and GMs to decipher things for themselves  and make their own minds up as to what is going on in The City. We’re also going to be producing a series of affordable (OK, perhaps cheap is a better description) guides to specific areas of The City. They’ll be sixteen pages each and include expanded details on a particular area, maps, NPCs, locations and adventure nuggets.

The art in a/state lite is very evocative, who are the people behind it?

It’s actually just one person behind it, my very talented and imaginative partner in crime Paul Bourne. The great thing about Paul doing the art for the game is that he manages to render the written word into images
in exactly the way I imagine scenes, characters or buildings to be.

That’s a great thing to have in an artist. Paul has also influenced the setting by producing some art that was just way beyond what I expected and actually caused me to change areas and buildings to better reflect
the art.

Do you give them a set specification, or let them just draw cool stuff?

Half of the time the art is based on stuff I’ve written, the other half Paul has come up with on his own. Sometimes we’ve sat down and said “Right, we need a…” and Paul has gone off and designed the item or scene in question, usually getting it spot on first time! As a recent example, we needed a picture of a car for the game (although they are very rare and expensive). I had a visual image of something that combined the look of 1950’s American cars and modern sports tourers, yet being sinister and threatening at the same time. We looked at certain cars, particularly the Buick Y-Job which is reckoned to be the first ever concept car, and then Paul went off an did his thing! The result was fantastic and one which entirely fits the initial concept. Paul also designed most of the weapons in the game, despite not being an authority on anything to do with guns. I think that helps, in a way, as it allows the artist just to go for a certain look or feel, without being constrained by images of how guns really are.

A lot of the art seems computer generated, was that an intentional choice?

CG art is now Pauls preferred medium of choice, although he is also  a very talented airbrush artist. CG art is a medium which seems to be rather under-used in the RPG world, although that will probably change in the future. Having a game which uses purely digital art certainly marks a/state out as something different (although, I hasten to add, not unique).

I was impressed with the layout of the lite version. Are you keeping a similar layout for the
final product?

Yes, the overall layout will be the same, with a few tweaks here and there to clean things up and give greater clarity. Again, the layout and design was entirely down to Paul who did a really nice job with the almost art deco style of the pages. We took a decision fairly early on to keep the page tone as ‘light’ as possible. Some game books are a bit heavy on page furniture, which we thought made things a bit ‘busy’ and took up space that would have been better used for art or text. Although the game itself is fairly dark in tone, keeping the layout light makes it more readable and accessible.

Which are your favourite player characters from playtesting? Did any of them worm into the book as NPCs?

Yep, there are a couple of playtest characters in the book. Perhaps my favourite is Janus Kripitsch, the Lostfinder from Mire End. He was the first character I actually sketched out for the game and features fairly heavily in the full version. There’s a short story in the full version of the game called ‘A Sense Of Common Indecency’ in which Kripitschis the lead character. For some reason, I kind of like the idea of an ethical, community-focussed private investigator who relies on the goodwill of the people. Maybe something of a subversion of the traditional hard-boiled, tough guy gumshoe stereotype. Jane Card is another playtest character who found their way in. She’s a Ghostfighter; stealthy, uber-proficient knife fighters. No game is complete without a ninja type character, ninjas are just cool. But ninja in a/state would be ridiculous, so we’ve
got Ghostfighters!

When can we get our grubby little mitts on the game?

April 2003 is now our projected release date. There have been a few minor setbacks, but to be honest, we’d rather take our time and produce as error free, coherent, consistent and worthwhile product as possible. When you’re asking people to part with over 20 quid (£25 actually) for a game, it had better be worth their money. However, we have now taken the decision to produce the game as a lavish hardback. Which is nice.

Thanks to Malcolm for taking the time to answer our questions.

To find out more about a/state and Contested Ground Studios, visit www.contestedground.co.uk/

Interview © 2002 Matt Machell and Contested Ground

Review : Darkages: Vampire Limited Edition

A new edition of the medieval vampire setting.

By White Wolf, £39.99 Print

Getting Medieval On Our Asses

Vampire: The Dark Ages, was one of my favourite White Wolf games. A curious blend of history and horror, mixed with a dash of mythology. It managed to set itself apart from it’s parent game system, forging it’s own path. Where Vampire: The Masquerade focused on personal horror, and the downward spiral away from humanity. Darkages made its path the pilgrims journey, a subtle shift in focus that made the whole game different enough from its predecessor to warrant its own line. Plus it had vampiric crusaders cutting a bloody swathe through turbulent times, and then agonising over it in a mindset peculiar to medieval times. It was written in a way that conveyed the feel of the times. This new version sets about reworking the Dark Medieval world top fit in with the Revised Edition of Vampire.

Lets start with look and feel. The book, being the limited edition, has a gorgeous feel. A slipcase containing a dark leather effect hardback, complete with red bookmark and shiny metallic logo. In addition to the main rulebook you get a thin artbook style introduction to the Dark Medieval world, told as a series of pilgrims tales, Geoffrey Chaucer eat your heart out. This game will look nice on your shelf, or coffee table. Was it worth an extra 20 quid? Depends how much you like strokable Ltd editions really. As a darkages fan, I happen to like it.

As ever the artwork is a mix of styles, tastes vary, I like some of it, was less impressed by others. John Bolton again gives us some wonderful chapter dividers, full of gothic menace. I’m pretty sure the clan pages were illustrated by Kieran Yanner, but he isn’t credited, so I can’t be sure. I didn’t like these images to begin with, but they’ve grown on me. I suppose I just missed the old clan template illustrations, moustaches and all. There’s a handy map of Medieval Europe illustrating the inside cover too, which is a nice addition. Layout is good overall, though the white text on black background sidebars are a bit stark, though they do draw attention to important side information.

The introductory fiction is a mix of mad prophetic ranting and the story of Caine. It’s not overly annoying, and doesn’t suffer from “cool dude with signature weapon” problem that many such intros do. I’m not a fan of introductory fiction, but this didn’t detract from the book, and set the religious tone of medieval times quite well.

The Introduction gives us the standard run down of what the game is, what Vvampires are in this context, what a “storytelling game” is, gives us a chapter by chapter rundown and recommends some resources. Cadfael gets a mention, but not The Name Of The Rose, which I thought odd.

Chapter One gives us an overview of the setting. It’s a nice mix of history, atmosphere building and background material. We are given the details of how Caine sired the race of vampires, how there are different clans of vampire which are caught in the eternal struggle, their stereotypes, the Traditions, Hierarchies, and so on. Details of how vampires work in the setting. The biggest difference here, is a stronger focus on the Roads (vampiric codes of morality) than previously. The writers have player up their importance, and filtered that into the setting nicely. We also get an introduction to the war of Princes, essentially an update of the setting to 1230 AD, which gives a stronger feudal hierarchy to the existing vampiric society structure and a good intrinsic conflict for player characters to become involved in. Now vampiric Princes hold Domains for Lords, who in turn hold their principalities for Monarchs. Clans have also been neatly divided into High and Low, essentially nobles and rabble. This chapter really hammers home the mindset of the setting.

Chapter Two explains the various vampire clans in more detail. Clans, for those of you not in the know, are vampire’s equivalent of classes. They are thirteen styles of vampire, that give you a starting point for creating your character. The Brujah are mostly passionate warrior philosophers, the Tremere are secretive wizards, the Tzimisce are hoary eldritch fiends and warlords, the Malkavians are all mad; generic starting points which you can mould into your own concept. The descriptions try hard to avoid making each Clan seem too clichéd, and for the most part provide good introductions to the clans from which a player can springboard a variety of concepts. Some slip slightly, 10th Level Ventrue Paladin anyone?

Chapter three focuses on the Roads, our aforementioned vampiric codes of morality. Roads are given a solid introduction, that brings home how important these codes are to the setting. We get details of the five Roads followed by the majority of Europe’s vampires: The Roads of Humanity, The Beast, Sin, Kings and Heaven. Each is given a two page summary, complete with coat of arms and a nicely evocative illustration. Each of the roads exemplifies a particular aspect of the setting, which is a nice touch. New rules have been added for “auras” for each of the roads, a mechanic that nicely rewards adherence to a road in game by giving you bonuses in certain social situations. For example, followers of the road of kings have a commanding presence, which helps them on social rolls related to giving orders.

The next chapter covers the basic rules. These will be familiar to anybody who’s played before, you use a pool of ten sided dice, based of an attribute and an ability. For each dice that rolls over a difficulty, you get a success. Tens get re-rolled (now optional, oddly) and if you roll any 1s without getting a success, you botch. Personally I prefer the Exalted system, where there’s only one difficulty, and number of successes is the difficulty, as this streamlines the system somewhat. But as dice rolling will probably be quite rare, this is not too much of an issue.

Chapter five covers the points based character creation, and also defines the skills, attributes and other statistics relating to characters. There’s a nice section on “Thinking Medieval” here, which is a must for any player to read. I also enjoyed the addition of a set of “starting points”, character templates useful for inspiring new players. These don’t fall into White Wolf’s normal trap of waffling on about a concept, they’re clear and succinct, just enough to get creative juices flowing. This chapter details at length each of the abilities and what each level is worth. Though why they can’t just give one table saying Poor, Average, Good, Exceptional and Outstanding, I’m still not sure. Each of the backgrounds, a vampires ties to external resources is also covered. The chapter is rounded off with a look at health levels, blood pool, humanity, willpower, and experience points. It’s nice to see the maturation system making it into the main rulebook.

Chapter 6 details the vampiric disciplines. The cool powers and funky abilities that make vampires stand out (or in some cases hide away). For those of you who aren’t familiar with the game, disciplines each cover a series of powers tied to a theme. Obfuscate covers hiding from sight, Potence is vampiric super strength, some are more tied to the traditional vampire myth than others, some are signature powers for particular clans. Each of the powers gets six levels of ability explained, with the exception of Mortis and Thaumaturgy which get a number of paths and rituals. Those familiar with the game will note that Celerity (vampiric speed) still follows the Darkages model of one action per blood point spent, rather than one blood point for all celerity actions, as seen in the modern day game.

Chapter 7 details “Dramatic Systems”, which is to say, what rolls you make to achieve certain actions. I’ve always found it odd that a game focused so much on storytelling and character, gives you precise rules for how far you can walk a turn. I’d much rather they went with “as far as the plot demands” approach, than the 12 + dexterity yards they actually choose. It’s handy for people new to the system I suppose, but seems to come more from a desire to simulate a reality, than a desire to tell interesting stories. Fanboys might say, “remember the golden rule, you can always change it”, to which I say, wouldn’t it be better if the rules practised what later chapters preached: Story, Character, Theme, and Mood. This chapter also deals with combat, again more detail than is really necessary in a “storytelling game”. It works, but combats involving more than two people quickly degenerate into dice rolling competitions. It also provides rules for handling vampiric reactions to fire, sunlight, and a characters degeneration towards the bestial state and away from his Road.

Chapter 8 gives advice for the storyteller when preparing his game, or chronicle as it’s called here. It covers how to convey the setting’s atmosphere, themes, mood and get across the Medieval mindset. It also gives advice on controlling players, creating non-player characters and so on. At only twelve pages, it’s a tad short for my liking, but no doubt there’ll be a Storytellers Handbook out soon to remedy this, and the information given is enough for a beginner to get a basic grounding in the concept of setting up a game. One nice thing is that there’s actually a section on “Letting Your Players Write the Story”.

Antagonists and Allies is the title of the next chapter. It gives a rundown of the other denizens of the Dark Medieval world. It’s got brief details on ghouls (vampire servants), The Church (inquisition included), Werewolves, Mages, Ghosts ,Demons and Fae. There’s also a number of handy sidebars telling you what vampires know of these groups, even the informed ones, handy for gauging just how much characters should know of the setting. All this information should get a new storyteller filled with ideas for villains and other non-player characters.

The appendix covers the merits and flaws system. A series of handy traits for making characters unique and interesting, and always handy for hanging a plot off. Shame they’re considered optional. There’s also a Bestiary detailing common animals, and the weird creations of vampiric magic.

Overall: This is not a new game by any stretch of the imagination. It is a revision and repackaging. For this reason it is a game that will appeal more to newcomers to White Wolf and completists. Those of you who already know and love the game will find a few changes, but it is not a drastic update. The setting is excellent, the presentation good, but the rules system occasionally lets the game down.

Review : Adventure!

White Wolf’s game of Pulp heroics.

By White Wolf, $25.95/£16.99

Action, Adventure, and Really Wild Things

It took me ages to get round to buying Adventure! I wish I’d bought it earlier. Adventure! is, in my opinion, a spot on roleplaying game. It is a wonderful combination of loyalty to genre in both presentation and mechanics. Adventure! is White Wolf’s pulp game, and you know exactly what it’s about just by looking at the cover. Flip through and you’ll see the slightly discoloured paper and illustrations that fit the subject matter perfectly. This is the game for all those Indiana Jones and Doc Savage fans.

The first part of the book is filled with background material in the form of short stories, and the annals of the Aeon Society. The stories manage to nicely convey the feel of the pulp writing on which the game is based (and as a Planetary fan I’m a sucker for Warren Ellis material). The rest of the background material manages to avoid many of the things I find annoying about in-character background, and gives a nice idea of the types of stories Adventure is design to create, as well as providing a reasonable world overview for the 1920s.

The game information doesn’t actually begin until page 107, at which point we’re given the standard White Wolf introduction to roleplaying, which I’ve read too many times, but which is essential for newbies. The first chapter deals with the basic storyteller system rules, how traits and abilities work. It’s nice and brief, and has plenty of examples for people who haven’t played before. The system is a tweaked version of the original Storyteller rules: You roll some ten sided dice equal to a attribute + ability, any result of 7 or more is a success. The more successes the better you do. If you don’t get any successes and roll a 1, you botch, causing a mishap. If a task is more difficult, you need more successes. Simple and easy to remember.

Character creation is, some would say thankfully, not splat focused. It follows a fairly familiar format: allocate set points to attributes (strength, wits, intelligence etc), abilities (firearms, stealth etc) and advantages (powers, connections, resources, etc), then spend transformation points to tweak. The chapter is nicely succinct, with a good summary and a running example. The rules for character advancement seem oddly out of place to me (though I can see the logic in putting everything in a chapter called Character). I also found myself flipping forward to the chapter on traits, so that I knew what Knacks (cool pulp powers)and Backgrounds there were.

The next chapter covers all the traits that define a character. It covers possible character origins, allegiance, and natures, along with attributes, abilities and backgrounds. A big thank you to White Wolf for finally noticing that it’s pointless to describe each level of every skill. Each skill gets a hefty and entertaining description of what it’s used for and suggested specialties, but no pointless repetition of “one dot is trained” etc. The backgrounds all have a nicely pulp feel (with some neat associated quotes), and include Sanctum and Nemesis. Characters can also take their backgrounds to astounding levels, so a character can have legions of followers or be wealthy beyond avarice, which is a nice touch. Characters in Adventure! also get Inspiration as a trait. Inspiration is used to power Knacks, as well as for “Dramatic Editing”. Dramatic editing is by far the coolest addition to the game, and allows for a large amount of player authorial power in the game. More on that later. Inspiration is also sub divided into three types, Intuitive, Destructive and Reflective, each of which can give a variety of bonuses to situations and help define your character’s style.

Chapter 4 details Knacks. Knacks are powers possessed by Pulp heroes. A lot of effort has obviously gone into making these evoke a pulp feel. Knacks are divided into three types: Heroic, Psychic and Dynamic. Heroic powers, aren’t really powers and allow characters to pull off all those coincidences that pulp heroes are famous for. Dramatic entrances, defying death, being a one man army, knowing how to design weird devices, there all here. Psychic powers are mesmerism, mind control and similar. Dynamic powers are much like heroic ones, but go beyond the normal bounds of humanity. Your character can be as tough as Bronze, or be inhumanly fast, but not at a superhero level, at a pulp level. The following chapter deals with Super Science. It gives a brief summary of how your character can create weird pulp-style devices, how long this would take, and how to repair them when things go wrong.

The next chapter is on Drama, which is White Wolf speak for rules. Here we have a rundown on how the system deals with dramatic feats, along with a comprehensive section on combat and damage. Here we also get the rules for Dramatic editing. Dramatic editing is a player empowerment technique, that allows you as the player to influence things outside your characters sphere of control. It gives the game the feeling of those old pulp cliffhangers. It allows players to add facts to a scene in their advantage. Those of you who have played games like The Pool or OctaNe will recognize it, but it’s nice to see this style of mechanic appear in a mainstream game.

Chapter 7 is about roleplaying, and covers a host of elements in a small amount of space. There’s a discussion of making sure characters fit together and don’t overlap, along with motivations and connections. There’s a look at the way the world of Adventure works (in terms of genre and period conventions), as well as a nice piece defining Pulp and comparing it to other styles of fiction. The storytellers section is a small, but gives good advice on plotting a pulp story, creating suitable villains, and how to deal with problem players.

Chapter 8 is a summary of the heroes and villains of the official setting, along with generic stats for commonly encountered bad guys. This section is handy for the Storyteller who lacks inspiration, and also useful reading for players whop want to get an idea of how to create pulp style character. Finally there’s an appendix, giving details of weapons, vehicles, the cost of travel, drugs, and a timeline. There’s also a handy list of resources and inspiration.

Overall: I love Adventure! It wonderfully evokes the atmosphere of pulp series. It is a joy to read, and leaves you wanting to start a game straight away. I can’t give any RPG a higher recommendation than that.

Interview : Red Dwarf – The Roleplaying Game

We talk to Todd Downing of Deep7 about the forthcoming Red Dwarf RPG. (

We talk to Todd Downing of Deep7 about their forthcoming game.

When we first heard about the Red Dwarf roleplaying game, we were surprised, and just a bit curious. So who better for the first of our interviews than the game’s creators. Armed with a selection of questions from fans, we tracked down Todd Downing of Deep7. Here’s what he had to say:

[Realms] First off, tell us a bit about yourself and Deep7.

[TD] I was born in a poor Welsh mining town – er, wait. Before Deep7, I’d done a fair bit of writing, art and design in computer games and indie comics, and had been designing RPGs since I first started playing them. Samantha, our Business Director (and the lovely lady I’m married to), had been an editor and run a couple small companies of her own. We started Deep7 in ’99 with a third partner, Ron Dugdale, with whom I’d run a game store previously. In the beginning, we were dedicated solely to virtual products, seeing a niche needing to be filled. In 2000, we released our first hardcopy product, Santa’s Soldiers. Last year we sold a line of CD-ROMs, and this year saw the release of our first substantial printed game, Arrowflight. Although it’s just Sam and I now (with a mighty army of freelancers and art friends I made in the video game industry), we are still following the same path we mapped out 3 years ago. Supporting the brick-and-mortar games market with good hardcopy products while making attractive and economical virtual products for the wired roleplayer.

[Realms] How did you go about securing the licence for such a cult television programme?

[TD] We asked. It was that simple, really. No one had bothered to try before us. I take notions of predeterminism with a grain of salt, but this was one of those “meant-to-be” things. As a fan of Red Dwarf since ’89, I’d always wanted to make an RPG in that setting, and almost 10 years after first discussing the concept with some of Arrowflight’s co-designers, here we are. We contacted Grant Naylor Productions, who very quickly referred us to IMC Licensing, who handles Red Dwarf in North America. It was relatively quick and painless, which I understand is not the case with many licenses. It’s probably spoiled us now.

[Realms] Working with licensed products can sometimes be constraining, how much free reign did you have with the project?

[TD] As with any license (especially when you’re making one into an RPG), there is a certain learning curve on both sides. We had to make sure they understood that we wouldn’t be mucking about with the canon of the show. As with any license, there were certain restrictions on content (NO ALIENS, for example), but we’ve actually been granted unprecedented creative freedom with our product, in terms of original artwork, new character types and ship blueprints, etc. Of course, we treat the canon with all due respect. Everything we added for game purposes has its roots in the show. We just push out and explore a bit of the less-developed areas of the ‘Dwarf universe.

[Realms] Tell us a bit about the system, how did you go about designing it?

[TD] That’s actually answered in one of the book’s two appendices (and you’re a true ‘Dwarfer if you get the reference), but I can say that it was designed as the backbone to nearly every Deep7 property thus far. The XPG system is a very simple one to grasp, and very cinematic. Our economy 1PG line strips the system down to so-simple-you-can-play-with-a-gaping-head-wound proportions, while the DEEP system utilized by Arrowflight adds layers of depth. XPG is the cornerstone of both variant systems, and seemed a perfect choice for both ease of play and character depth. Probably the best thing about it is its flexibility. As designers, we can make changes and tweaks and not have it collapse on us. As players and gamemasters, you can do your own tweaking and still not break its functionality. It facilitates a wide range of cinematic styles, from the classic film noir of Mean Streets to the swashbuckling adventure of the upcoming Bloode Island XPG, to (as we have discovered) comedy like Red Dwarf.

[Realms] Which design decisions did you have the most problems with?

[TD] How to make it funny. Because if it ain’t funny, what’s the point? Fortunately, the book is really aimed at fans of the show, and it includes a pretty basic primer on roleplaying, roleplaying comedy, and roleplaying comedy in the Red Dwarf universe. It also brings the gamemaster into the game as the ship’s AI, with notes on how to run a game in character and how to make it funny. As it turns out, given the raw material of the show, it wasn’t the Herculean task we thought it would be. But the fans will be the final judges on how well we pulled it off. For what it’s worth, the folks at Grant Naylor Productions are very happy with the material.

[Realms] What do you consider to be the core points of the show, and how have they translated it into the game? What makes it, not just another space game?

[TD] The same thing that makes Red Dwarf not just another space show. The characters, their interactions, the situations they find themselves in. Name another sci-fi series that portrays a ship captain traumatized by a T-Rex with diarrhoea, or that accidentally screws up the JFK assassination timeline because someone wants a curry. Once we distilled the basic essence of the show, it made the translation to adventure game with very little trouble. The fact that you can have a delusional hologram in a group with an evolved lab rat, or an entire ship crewed by wax droids of Winnie the Pooh characters being chased by ravenous spaghetti monsters says this is not your usual sci-fi game. The fact that you can play wax droid Winnie the Pooh characters in a western gunslinger AR scenario makes it even more unique.

[Realms] What’s sort of options are there during character creation? All the characters in Red Dwarf are in some way deeply flawed, how have you covered this?

[TD] We address the flawed character themes very strongly and early on. We’ve included an entire personality section, where players can choose among Assets, Liabilities and Behavior Tags to make their character as flawed and silly as they desire. There are even ways to become more flawed as the game progresses, through insanity, disease and other trauma. It’s really quite fun!

[Realms] Is control of the game very focused on the GM, or will the system feature some player authorial control?

[TD] Well, it certainly falls to the AI to maintain order and convey the specifics of the game, however it is hoped that our presentation will inspire more initiative among players. Ideally, it should run like an episode of Red Dwarf, perhaps with a more epic feel (and certainly not limited to a 30-minute timeslot).

[Realms] Red Dwarf is a comedy, how have you captured that in the game? Comedy is difficult to write, let alone improvise, how will the rules encourage it?

[TD] The rules are written pretty much in the style of the show. You’re right – it’s very difficult to write comedy, but we had a good crop of writers, most of whom were ‘Dwarf fans already. I’d already written comedy for stage, film, animation and comics, so it came pretty naturally. Again, once you really distill the series down to where you can recognize the formula, it becomes easier to write in that style and thus convey the right tone for the game. In terms of rules, ‘Dwarf-isms pop up everywhere. The wound levels range from “A Bit Wonky” to “Smoldering Hole”. You can take “Smeghead” as a Liability (which is, appropriately, the next step up from “Gimboid”). We did everything we could to really evoke the setting and the inherent humor of it. Even down to full-page color ads for Diva-Droid, Ouroboros Batteries and the Space Corps.

[Realms] Red Dwarf has a legion of fans. How worried are you about their reaction?

[TD] As members of that mighty legion (or as Rimmer would say, le jon?), we made the game we, as fans, wanted to play. I’m confident that the majority of ‘Dwarf fans will “get” it, and probably like what we did with it. One of the first weird comments we heard was that one fan wanted to get it so he could convert it to another popular, more technical system, sight unseen (which is kind of missing the point, isn’t it?). The feedback from our international playtest was overwhelmingly positive, even from the German and Brazilian groups, who don’t get much (if any) Red Dwarf. And based on what we’ve posted on the Deep7 website, we’re hearing from excited fans every day. The queue is forming…

[Realms] One of the great things about Red Dwarf is it’s ability to mix humour with some complex issues. Episodes like Meltdown deal with much more than “laugh at the losers lost in space”, how will the game deal with, or encourage, this kind of story?

[TD] This is really at the discretion of the group in question. We can’t really mandate things like “be sure your adventure includes a healthy dose of social conscience”. But so much of Red Dwarf has that anyway, even in episodes you wouldn’t normally think did. Look at Camille, Waiting for God, Timeslides, and the Last Day, just for starters. It’s kind of fundamental to the vibe of the show, and it’s a factor in the book, albeit not overtly.

[Realms] Will you have extensive curry rules?

[TD] Curry is definitely a factor. We have stats for the Vindaloo Beast. Of course, you can take the Cooking skill and specialize in Curry. You can wear week-old curry as body armour (if your shipmates don’t push you out the airlock). You can turn your friends into it (if you encounter a DNA Modifier). Curry is a catalyst in the Red Dwarf Scenario Generator (included in the book). You can also choose to alter your own group’s universe so that some other spicy food takes the place of curry in the show. Like Mexican? Thai? It’s all possible.

[Realms] Which RPGs do you enjoy, and which have influenced you when writing this one?

[TD] My personal all-time faves are Cyberpunk 2020, Star Wars (the West End version) and Deadlands. All three really conveyed a rich setting and had easy-to-learn, cinematic systems. For comedy specific RPGs, I’ve always liked Toon, Teenagers From Outer Space, Paranoia and the occasional gem of hilarity like Ninja Burger. Bill Smith, who was behind a lot of West End’s Star Wars stuff in the ’90s, was a great mentor to us, and Red Dwarf is probably closest to that version of Star Wars in terms of presentation.

[Realms] Will there be character advancement, and if so, how are you handling it?

[TD] Yes, there is character advancement. XPG doesn’t have “levels” like some other games. It’s skill-based character improvement. Players gain Character Points at the end of each adventure, which can then be pumped back into individual skills.

[Realms] Are Red Dwarf games intended to be set on the Jupiter Mining Corporation vessel Red Dwarf? If not, what other options available for GMs?

[TD] Again, it depends on what kind of alternate universe you are setting up. We have stats for the JMC Red Dwarf, but nothing’s stopping you from playing on the JMC Oregon or the SSS Esperanto or the SSS Ozzy Osbourne. Just like it’s up to you whether to set your timeline pre-continuity (only humans and mechanoids) or post-continuity (very few humans, evolved cats, dogs or non-canon pets like rabbits and iguanas). By the same token, your character can be the exact character from the show, a variant of that character, or a completely new one. You could be playing in the universe where Sheila Krebbs was locked in stasis and revived three million years later with a Hudzen 10 mech, an evolved lab rat and a re-programmed simulant. Along the way they may save an injured Kinitawowi warrior who tags along to fulfill some sort of tribal life-debt. Or perhaps they happen across a lost colony of pleasure GELFs or a holo-world where hard-light holograms fight to the death in a primitive arena. As long as the AI gives them plenty of opportunity to cock it up, it’s all good.

[Realms] Do you want some toast? How about a muffin?

[TD] Ask me a question that is wholly un-bready and not even slightly curranty.

[Realms] What have you got planned for the future of the game?

[TD] Well, the AI Screen will be shipping shortly after the basic game. After that, we have some options, but it will likely be next spring before any see print. It is our hope to release a movie sourcebook timed with the release of theRed Dwarf feature film.

[Realms] What has been your favourite role-playing experience, as a player or GM?

[TD] Must’ve been when I was playing a halfling charged with a quest to destroy a magic ring in the fires of Mt. Doom… oh wait. That wasn’t me. Um, there was that time when – you know – with the thing, and the treasure, and the monster, and the elf hookers. Ahhh. Good times. Seriously, when you’ve been gaming for 20-some years, it’s hard to pick one moment. There are a ton of “no sh**, there I was” stories no one particularly wants to hear.

[Realms] What do you think about the recent explosion of third party D20 products, and its effect on the games industry?

[TD] While we don’t make d20 products (for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here), I must say, I love the fact that it exists. It made possible a bandwagon of products that eventually created a market glut. And the best thing about a market glut is that it makes other products – products that don’t follow the leader – stand out all the more. Part of Arrowflight’s success has been the fact that it wasn’t d20. And since we’re in it for the long haul, we’re more concerned with strong long-term sales than with huge sales for three months before falling flat.

[Realms] How much of the artwork will actually be artwork, and how much will be photographic in nature? Who (if anyone) is doing the art for the product?

[TD] Being a licensee has its perks, definitely. I will admit we availed ourselves of the Grant Naylor photo archives. The majority of the illustrations are photographic, including promo shots and screen captures from the show. However we have some wonderful full color character illustrations by Steve Hartley, a concept piece by Mike Tucker of the BBC effects department, and a 3D deck plan of Starbug by Julian De Puma. I did the interior border and cover designs, and the fake “ads”.

[Realms] How much input have you had from the cast or Grant Naylor?

[TD] In terms of content, they’ve been very happy and the list of changes has been pretty minor. We get a lot of immediate input from Andrew Ellard, who is the official Red Dwarf website coordinator (and who is writing all the liner notes for the upcoming DVDs). We also got the most awesome back cover quote from Robert “Kryten” Llewellyn.

[Realms] Which is your favourite character from the playtesting?

[TD] You know, the single biggest success from playtesting was the realization of how much wax droids open up one’s imagination. My brother Gavin (who also worked on the game) and I included them almost as an afterthought. Throughout the playtests we were treated to stories of a wax droid Captain Morgan, Christopher Walken, Niles Crane (from Frasier) and Ozzy Osbourne. And then there’s that whole Winnie the Pooh thing, which was so wrong on so many levels, and yet so very ‘Dwarf. Of course, to balance out the cool you-can-be-anyone advantage, there’s that pesky little melting problem

[Realms]Thanks to Todd for taking the time to answer our questions.

Red Dwarf – The Roleplaying Game is set to be released in October 2002. Price will be $34.95 (about £25). For which you’ll get an 172 page hardcover rulebook, 2-colour interior with 18 full-colour pages. More information is available at the Deep7 website.