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Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: Rough Magicks (Trail of Cthulhu)

Rought Magicks is a magic rules supplement for Trail of Cthulhu. Now, I haven’t actually read the ToC rules yet, but I have some familiarity with the Gumshoe system, so I could more or less understand what was going on here. Apparently the base magic rules given in the core book are either very minimal or completely missing, thus the need for this supplement.

Since it’s written by Ken Hite, there is a certain expectation of quality here, and I wasn’t disappointed. Ken examines the various ways in which magic is presented in Lovecraft’s work, and then gives the GM various tools to simulate those effects. Best of all, many of the “how does magic work?” systems and explanations given here are (intentionally) contradictory, the expectation is that the GM will mix and match to get something suitably mysterious and creepy for his/her game. I like this approach, since “deterministic magic” is a mood-killer for a game like Cthulhu. Here, the players really won’t know what to expect, with the small downside that the GM has to do a small bit of prepwork in advance.

It’s compact, well-written and useful. If you’re running Trail of Cthulhu, you almost certainly want a copy of this.

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Minireview: Maiden, Mother, Crone (Pathfinder "Reign of Winter" 3/6)

With Maiden, Mother, Crone, the “Reign of Winter” adventure path hits its midpoint. The adventure is a mix of good and… well, missed opportunities. The plot has the PCs arrive in farr-away Iobaria via the Tardis-like Dancing Hut (a very cool element), and on arrival they are surrounded by a threat they have no hope of vanquishing. It’s here that the PCs get a taste of the Hut’s extra capabilities, in the offensive department. That dealt with, the PCs meet up with a tribe of centaurs, which is assumed to be a somewhat friendly encounter but could fo course go horribly awry. From there, their quest to find a critically important “key” for the Hut leads them to a trio of vast statues carved into the mountainside, depicting the classic “maiden, mother and crone” trio of “Fates”. Lo and behold, these statues turn out to contain cavern networks, making the end portion of this outing into a dungeon crawl.

The first half is quite interesting, and provides multiple sorts of encounters for the PCs. The second half is a bit less so, even though for a dungeon crawl it’s a pretty good one – the “dungeon” consists of three interconnected parts, via teleports, and has the potential for totally confusing any explorers. The inhabitants are also quite interesting, with a detailed backstory. One the minus side, it’s not all that likely that the PCs will ever discover that backstory or the details of the somewhat intricate internal politics of the statue internal environments. That’s a pity, because here it’s quite well designed. Of course, the fact that over half of the adventure consists of this dungeon crawl takes away a bit from the initial “exploring alien location” vibe, since these caverns could basically be located anywhere.

Overall, pretty good.

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Minireview: Empire of Ivory, by Naomi Novik

Empire of Ivory is the fourth book in Novik’s “Temeraire” series, detailing the adventures of Captain William Laurence and “his” dragon Temeraire, of the British Aerial Corps. The plot continues some time after the events of the previous book: Lawrence and Temeraire are safely back in Britain, but Napoleon is pressing onward on the war front and it seems that most of the British dragons have contacted some sort of deadly disease. Because lack of air support would mean easy pickings for Napoleon, the primary goal of the Corps becomes keeping up the illusion of strength, all the while their dragons are in dire straits.

As a small glimmer of hope, Temeraire himself remains healthy, and a memory from their earlier voyage towards China, by boat, leads some to conclude that a possible cure lies somewhere on the coast of Africa. It’s a slim chance, but it’s better than nothing. So off they go, back towards the “dark continent”, looking for a cure. What they find is something more. Given the history of the slave trade, in which Britain is also complicit, Europeans have many enemies in Africa… and some of those enemies are not weak push-overs.

Like the previous books, it’s a well-written adventure tale. Some of the events stretch credibility a small bit… but hey, we are talking about an alternate-history tale with dragons in it, so I’m willing to forgive some unlikely events in the service of a classic adventure tale. Since this is a more modern tale than the old “white man goes to tame black Africa and bring civilization” stories of yore, the portrayal of native peoples (and the “white man” protagonists) is also more nuanced and contains scales of grey instead of “good guys” and “bad guys”.

If you liked the previous books, chances are you’ll like this too. It continues the story and takes it in some new directions, some of which will have repercussions later.

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Minireview: Mummy the Curse

White Wolf (and now Onyx Path) have a long history of games called “Mummy”; what started out as just a weird little add-on for the first edition of the World of Darkness later spawned a second edition and even later grew into a separate (though small) game line called Mummy: the Resurrection. All of these games featured immortal beings, “mummies”, who are immortal in an interesting way. They can die, but they always come back. Spawned in ancient Egypt, they pursue their own agendas and (very rarely) interact with other WoD supernatural beings.

Mummy: the Curse is a new version of that base idea, for the “new” World of Darkness. Like many of the other new versions of old game titles, it takes the same basic idea but then goes into very different directions with it. Here, the results are quite excellent, though I cannot really compare with Mummy: the Resurrection since I don’t own that book.

Here, mummies are still ancient, immortal beings, originating in ancient Egypt. The origin story is different, but in basic terms the main idea is the same. The details, however, are very different, in an interesting way. The main innovation is the balanced forces of Memory and Sekhem. Memory is the “morality” stat here, while Sekhem measures raw magical power. Now, in more normal rpgs a new character would start off with a fairly high “morality” (i.e. Memory) and a low power level (Sekhem). Not so here, quite the opposite. A “new” character is assumed to be a Mummy who just woke up from potentially very lengthy slumber, and they start off with zero Memory and maximum (ten) Sekhem. As a result, new Mummy characters have no memory of who they are and what they should be doing, and very poor self-control… but they have vast amounts of power. In other words, they actually mirror the rampaging semi-mindless horrors from movies. A bit later, Memory starts to rise, giving the Mummy (and the player) some glimpses of the being’s past life and providing more stability – but on the flip-side, Sekhem starts to go down, slowly. When, usually much later, Sekhem hits zero, the Mummy needs to enter slumber again, to await the next trigger event.

What is that trigger event that wakes a Mummy up? It could be some looter stealing one of his/her artifacts (ancient artifacts play a big role in this game). If could be his/her cult, if one exists, enacting rituals means to wake the “master”; usually this means that the cult is in big trouble, which does not always combo well with a just-woken, potentially rampaging monster with no memories.

In game terms, all this is an awesome setup, and turns the old “zero-to-hero” trope on its head. The PCs start of at the height of their powers, and must do whatever it is that they were woken up to do before that power runs out. In other words, it also provides a “game clock” to keep the PCs moving. Memory and Sekhem aren’t tightly bound together, a drop of one point in one does no automatically mean a raise in the other. They just are hooked to mechanics which will, eventually, raise Memory and lower Sekhem. How fast? That depends on a lot of factors, some of them withing player control.

It’s a big book, and not exactly a light read (though it is quite well-written). There’s simply a lot fo stuff here to digest, and the fact that the writers chose to use Egyptian terminology and names doesn’t help. Don’t get me wrong, I very much like the use of Egyptian terminology here, it’s a nice touch, it’s just that since those words aren’t familiar to me I found myself constantly trying to remember what was what. Most of the page count goes towards describing the background story, character creation, and the rules mechanics, but there’s also a short intro scenario provided. It’s decent.

This is a very cool game. It’s also not for everyone, putting it in the same “very cool but difficult” category where Promethean sits. Some of the difficulty comes from the unusual basic setup, and some from the fact that the GM has a lot of control here and needs to provide a large part of who the PCs are. Remember, the PCs initially remember nothing of their origins, and it’s the GM’s job to figure that out and make sure that origin has lots of interesting stuff in it. Some players, and some GMs, may not be comfortable with this much GM control in the character design. The game is very much about memory, and about figuring out who you are, and what you want to do; ancient rituals bind each Mummy somewhat, but they all have a choice of what they want to be. A rebel, or a willing servant of ancient forces, cast in a world which bears no resemblance to their origins.

It should be noted that while there is an antagonist faction (of sorts) provided, these mummies are more than capable of being true monsters themselves. They initially have no memory and little control, leading to scenes possibly like Vampiric frenzy. Later, they regain some of what they were… but what they were usually has nothing to do with modern concepts of human rights or morals. Some may sacrifice children to ancient gods as a matter of course, as something all civilized beings do. Some may do worse. These are not modern people who just happen to be immortal, they are supernatural products of an ancient, long-vanished culture…. which brings us back to: “this game is not for everyone”. It’s probably somewhat challenging to run and play. That said, I was very impressed with this new resurrection of the ancient “Mummy” game line, it’s a very innovative game.

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Minireview: Mummy (World of Darkness)

Mummy is a (very) old World of Darkness book, actually published before the first Werewolf game. It gives us the first glimpse at mummies, later expanded into more substantial books and small game lines. While it’s old and quite thin, it’s not bad. Many details have changed since this book came out, but the core concepts behind classic World of Darkness mummies are here: mystic immortals, with their origins in ancient Egypt. While vampires are also immortal, this is immortality of a different and more substantial sort: these guys may die now and then, but they always come back. Often, angry.

The book details their origin story, or at least one version of it, as narrated by a possibly-unreliable narrator. The same ritual which created mummies also created their “evil” versions, the so-called “Bane Mummies”, giving the “true” mummies a natural antagonist group. There aren’t all that many mummies wandering around, which limits their use in rpg terms, especially as PCs. Yes, the book actually contains character creation rules for these, which surprised me a bit. In reality, the main use case for this book is providing a new set of weird NPCs (allies or antagonists) for a PC group consisting of vampires or werewolves. And as such, it’s quite decent. If you actually want to play as mummies, the later incarnations of this book are probably better bets (or the new Mummy: the Curse game which has a somewhat different take on things).

The only really weird bit here is the fiction surrounding the chapters, in which a vampire meets a mummy (with no prior knowledge of these beings), and said mummy proceeds to tell the narrator all about himself and his origins. “Yes, you are a vampire, how nice, sit down and let me tell you all about out ancient and secretive group!”. It’s all very artificial. I usually like the old-WoD style of doing in-character narrations on various subjects, I find it often works better than a dry “objective” text… but here, it all gets a bit silly.

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Minireview: The Shackled Hut (Pathfinder "Reign of Winter" 2/6)

The new “Reign of Winter” adventure path hits its stride with The Shackled Hut, the second installment. Here, the PCs have been transported to a far-off land via a magic portal, and their only hope of returning home is linked to solving the current threat of a perma-winter which is somehow linked to the Witch-Queen Baba Yaga. Stuff to do, people to kill, situation normal.

It’s a fairly strong adventure, with only the end portion being a bit muddled and railroady. Things start off with a wilderness section, where the PCs meet up with some potentially friendly NPCs. Assuming they make friends and don’t automatically attack everything that moves, they should be able to gain helpful information for the later stages, and maybe get some other help too. The problem being that Baba Yaga’s hut (yes, that famous one) is chained up in Whitethrone, the totalitarian-style capital of Irrisen, with Baba Yaga herself nowhere to be seen. So the PCs need to make their way to the hut and figure out how it works, despite heavy guard and being strangers in a strange land (which is under martial law, to boot).

The best part here is the hut itself. While it’s outwardly like the standard mythical thing (chicken legs, all that), inside it’s… very different. Think TARDIS, not “Russian peasant hut” (though it’s a bit of both). It will form the base for of the rest of the adventure path, and the PCs will get very used to it… to the extent that it’s possible to get used to it, due to its fluid nature. Fun stuff.

The worst part is the ending, which has a “boss fight” which seems a bit forced, along with railroady elements designed solely to stop alternate solutions by the PCs and to force said fight. It’s a bit stupid, but it’s easy enough to change, and the rest of the module makes up for the somewhat uneven ending.

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Minireview: Black Powder War, by Naomi Novik

Black Powder War, book 3 in the “Temeraire” series, is a bit of an interlude book. It’s not bad; like its predecessors it’s a page-turner and there’s a lot of fun action. Nevertheless, the story here doesn’t stand on its own, and consists of several quite unrelated episodes.

The book begins with Temeraire and Lawrence’s return voyage from China, which (due to scheduling reasons) becomes an overland journey towards Istanbul. The beginning is quite hastily narrated, and quickly sets the expedition on the road. Things don’t go quite as smoothly as hoped, of course, and the group arrives in Istanbul worse for wear…and faces the fact that their presence there may be just manipulation from their enemies. After shenanigans concerning the local palace grounds and certain dragon eggs, they all flee towards Prussia. On arrival, they are (naturally enough) enlisted as part of the war effort, and get to see Napoleon’s tactics upfront. The book doesn’t really have a proper ending, it just fizzles out after Lawrence and Temeraire flee for their lives (once again).

It’s not a bad book, and it sets the stage for the next book in the series. However, the fact that most of the book is just narration about the main characters’ travel from China to Europe, with little unifying main plot other than the voyage itself and some distinct local conflicts, leaves the book feeling less solid than the previous two.

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Minireview: Torchbearer

Torchbearer is an interesting and somewhat unusual game. Designed by Thor Olavsrud and Luke Crane (of Burning Wheel fame), it’s a “dungeon crawl roleplaying game and love letter to Basic D&D”, from the original Kickstarter blurb… and it really is that. On the other hand, thinking of it as a D&D clone is misleading. It starts off from the same premise as the original D&D: “dungeons” (i.e. caverns) filled with hostile creatures and deadly traps. From there, D&D slowly evolved into more of a super hero game, over each iteration, to the extent where nowadays “D&D” evokes images of hack’n’slash monster killing, then looting the corpses. The classic “murder hobos”, using an rpg.net -coined term. Sure, D&D had tons of rules for logistics and the environment itself: encumbrance rules, all sorts of environment variables, rules for light sources, etc etc. If you ran Basic D&D strictly by the book, it would be brutal. Thing is, pretty much nobody ran it that way, most people just skipped the logistics and proceeded to mash monsters. And that’s fine… but not what Torchbearer is about. In Torchbeaerer, logistics is what makes or breaks your expedition, and the environment is at least as dangerous as the monsters are. In other words, it takes the initial setup and tropes of D&D, and walks off in a completely different direction. This is both awesome and a potential source of problems.

The game actually has the PCs playing those “murder hobos”, people so poor and desperate that they will do anything, even venture into nasty, cold holes in the ground looking for loot. Because the alternative is starving, and that’s no fun. Initial characters have no resources other than a few basic supplies (plus weapon and such), and hope to strike it rich and retire to live the fancy life. Few do.

The system is complex. It says so right in the book, page 4:

“This is a hard game. It’s not a simple game. There are many moving parts and it’s not possible to experience the whole game in one or even two sessions. If you prefer lighter games, there are many other excellent choices available for you designed by our friends.”

so there’s that. It’s clearly a system meant for campaign play, which means that on the flipside it’s not ideal for one-shots. You could think of it as “Advanced Mouse Guard” in complexity, and while it is less complex than full Burning Wheel, it has the appearance of in-your-face complexity since it’s not modular like BW; you need to learn all the moving parts, at once. Well, most of them anyway.

Since it’s a Burning Wheel game, it’s very “gamist” and has subsystems and mechanics that strongly push for a certain type of play (and limit others). I’m fine with this, but some people, more used to freeform “the GM describes stuff, the players say what they do, and the GM comes up with something” sort of playstyle, may find the rules limitations hard to swallow. This is not a game that everyone will like, I think it’s safe to say… and the same goes for all of Luke Crane’s games, they are an acquired taste. I personally like them, quite a bit. With some caveats.

As an example of the rules, the main game loop has the concept of the Grind. After every four tests (by anyone), the PCs all get a Condition. The first one is “Hungry and Thirsty”, and it escalates from there. So yes, parties doing as lot of tests will need a lot of supplies. And yes, this may become a bit strange at times, but it’s important to put it in context: in Torchbearer, you only test if it’s something important. Looking for a secret door? The GM only asks for a test if there’s something there to be found. And so on. Also, many tests will take quite a bit of game time to perform, so “hungry / thirsty after 4 tests” isn’t actually all that strange most times, especially since just drinking some water gets rid of it. It’s the Conditions after that which start to be nasty and are harder to get rid of, but as long as you’re stocked with supplies, those don’t escalate so easily. But yes, supplies matter. Also, all take up a slot or slots on your character sheet, and there’s a very limited number of slots. It’s sort of like some computer rpg games, in that regard.

Also, you need some “checks” in order to make a camp, and you only get these by using your own Traits against yourself (example: “I take away one die from this sneak roll, since I’m so Proud that I have trouble remembering to hide”). Whether or not you succeed in the test, you get a “check”, which you can use to “buy” certain things while making camp (trying to heal, for example). Yes, there’s a separate Camp phase (and also Town phase, etc). This is mechanic that I’m split on: on one hand, I like the game mechanic, it forces you to roleplay your traits in negative ways, which is cool. On the other hand, there is no logical connection between it and what it enables. Why do I need to act in a certain (detrimental) way in order to be able to later heal myself? Makes no sense. So while I understand the need for the mechanic from the game viewpoint, I wish it was done via some other mechanism (no ideas on that front, though).

Anyway, those are just a few examples of how unconventional this game is. There are tons of unconventional (but, largely, very cool) mechanics here. For example, conflicts are handled as a group instead of character-by-character, but each character gets the spotlight and gets to use his/her special stuff. Also, the conflict mechanic is the same for armed conflict, arguments and even stuff like running away. It’s all a conflict, resolved via the same mechanism. This rocks, and it’s very fast in practice.

Having read the game, I wanted to try it out, so I got some players together and ran them through a one-shot (yes, I noted earlier that this game isn’t best at one-shots). The results were less than impressive: the players felt frustrated by the rules, and focused on minimizing the Grind… which led to all sorts of non-fun things, like optimization of tests and the “only the best skill in the group ever gets to try” syndrome. This was partly my fault, I over-explained the rules beforehand (instead of jumping to the action as fast as possible), and also over-emphasized the Grind (making the players wary of it). In addition, I didn’t know the rules well enough. There were some fun scenes in that game, but the result wasn’t too satisfying to anyone.

To their credit, the players said that they’d like to try again. So I read up on the rules a lot more, got a lot of great tips from the Burning Wheel forums, and tried another one-shot (the game from the core book, “Under the Inn of Three Squires”. The result, this time, was spectacularly different. The players (as agreed after our last game) didn’t fixate on the Grind too much and focused more on roleplaying, and the fact that this time around I knew the rules better helped a lot too. We had a lot of fun, and the PCs managed to save the day and walk away from that one without a scratch on them (I think they only had one Angry condition at the end). Plus, they got loot.

Things we liked, paraphrased from the player comments:

  • combats don’t dominate the game time, more gaming time was spent in camp logistics and roleplay
  • the same mechanic can handle a lot of stuff
  • the fact that character level advancement is strictly tied to roleplaying-related mechanics is nice, there is no “XP”
  • characters improve a small bit at a time, leading to a feel of character growth, which leads to nice campaign play support. Skills advance when you use them, so characters may change and improve in somewhat unexpected direction (since you can actually learn any skill).
  • after the initial steep learning curve, the base mechanics are actually quite lightweight

Things people were iffy about

  • there are lots of moving parts, are all of them really needed? (not sure on this myself… “maybe”?)
  • the fact that the cleric has zero player-chosen “spells” on first level was seen as a bit too weak by a player (they only have a “turn undead” style thingy)
  • managing what the characters are carrying is a bit cumbersome, could use some sort of helper system (whiteboard? tokens?)
  • the pre-generated Halfling character seemed semi-useless at first (“Cooking? Wtf?”), but second time around the player found him a lot less useless.

From a GM viewpoint:

  • the game offloads a lot of book-keeping to the players, making this one actually a relatively lightweight thing to run (after initial learning curve, which is steep)
  • monster stat boxes are nicely done, running combats and other conflicts is easy

In the end, I like this game quite a bit, and I’m thinking of maybe doing something more with it. I can recommend it, but please be aware that it’s not a D&D clone and that it has a ton of mechanics, many of them unusual. If you or your players are allergic to “gamist” systems, and are unwilling to narrate the gap between the rules and the game world (i.e. add color and improvisation to “why” and “how” something happens), you’ll probably end up hating this.

To people already familiar with and fond of Burning Wheel and/or Mouseguard: you’ll probably like this game, too. It’s a more complicated version of Mouseguard, tuned for gritty and grim dungeon exploration. There’s even a Mouseguard-inspired “Winter” phase, in addition to the semi-abstract Town phase.

It’s not a boring game. You’ll have an opinion about this one, after running or playing it.

Added: I also wrote about our experiences on the Burning Wheel forum, but be warned that that writeup contains spoilers for the scenario!

Added: Luke Crane posted the following on a related G+ comment thread, reposted here with permission:

“Let’s talk about checks being divorced from the fiction!

It seems like there’s no direct relationship between using a trait against yourself and camp activities.

I think the relationship is steel-linked, like mail. Using a trait against yourself makes your character more interesting to the audience. A character who is more interesting is rewarded with a little more screen time during the quieter moments of the game.

Using traits necessitates engaging with the fiction. They cause the spotlight to shine on you for a moment. That fiction then takes us, circuitously, to camp in which we get to see a little more about you.

So there’s no direct ‘drinking healing potion, regain HP’ link, but there is a strong connection written in the fiction.”

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