Tuesday 25 November 2008

Go back to school with Swords and Wizardry by Matthew J Finch

Swords and Wizardry by Matthew J Finch does exactly what it says on the tin. A gold tin forged in the fires of Mount Doom, to be one day lobbed back in by a scrawny bipolar neurotic. It's a boiled down core rules takes from the open-sourced version of the zeroth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. So old school that Latin is its first language. It stands proud for what it is. Unashamed to be derived from the earliest incarnation of the hobby that has commanded so many hours of our lives. It makes no apology. Roll up. Gear up. Get stuck in.

A disclaimer

It might be worth mentioning that I've never really played Dungeons and Dragons. I've dabbled at conventions under the watchful gaze of very understanding RPGA gamesmasters but for a legend such as Dungeons and Dragons, you really need to campaign it. Something I've never done. My myopia stretches just to the degree that I am aware that there are lots of editions and regular verbal fights erupt across the digital landscape regarding love, betrayal and murder but I'm not got a monkey's chance of understanding it. If you read this thinking 'DUH! MUPPET!', assume that I've never read a mainstream roleplaying game before. And you'd be right.

Character Creation

This might all sound very familiar to you but for me, it's something of a revelation. Imagine having toiled over physics studied to discover, years later, Newton's three laws of motion. If you're as fantasy ignorant as I, its like discovering the Rosetta stone and realising all these funny stick men hieroglyphics you've been staring at for years actually mean something. You rolls D6 for a series of Abilities (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution and Intelligence) and the value you roll translates to a plus or minus modifier. Once you have your Abilities and modifiers nailed down, it's off to choose your character class, which determines what sort of things you can do in the game. The classes are Cleric (a god botherer who prefers bashing people's skulls in with blunt instruments and throwing Deus driven magic, unlike my local vicar), The Fighting Man (who enjoys an evening in with Tennyson and cup of cocoa, obviously) and The Magic User (pointy hat, spell book, women's clothing). The Class gives you choice of equipment and skills but also a an advancement table, which plots how much experience you need for each level. After that, you choose a race: Dwarf, Elf, Halfling and Human. Then blow your hard rolled gold on loading up on stuff (20 foot of rope buyers are welcome). Finally, you calculate your Armour Class, which can either be either ascending or descending variants depending on what makes sense to you. Armour Class determines how hard you are to hit.

The system

You kill stuff. You gain experience points. You go up levels. You get better. Kill bigger stuff. Repeat. When you want to hit something, roll a D20 and then check the ENORMOUS table! I'm not so keen on tables. Turn action runs in order: see if there is a surprise attack, spell chuckers get to say what they're chucking, work out who goes first and then get stuck in. There's some advice on avoiding combat by lying and cheating. If players around the world are anything like mine then lying and cheating in character comes almost as easy as starting combat. So that's 23 of the 82 pages sorted.


Roll up! Roll up! Massive spells lists for you to peruse. More tables. More lists. Rule-ettes and a multitude of dice to wield. I know many people salivate at the thought of pouring over 30 pages of spellitude so I'll take a brief pause for those to collect themselves. Of course, this is a delightful hypocrisy coming from a man obsessed with pages of guns and phallic space craft. The game master section is a nod to game master sections. Blink and you'll miss it before ploughing into Monsters! Loads and loads of monsters. There's an entire ecosystem. From dragons to mould. Yes, mould. For those who have never played fantasy before, this might come as a shock. Mould. Yellow mould. A guide to making your own is also included. A brief guide to setting the right level of challenge is given before ploughing onto Treasure! Tables galore. Then some magical items.

The book and community

The book itself is 82 page PDF and is well laid with a profusion of tables images early on. It's laid out for duplex printing, so print the odd pages first. The text is curt and in plain English. It doesn't assume you know anything about Dungeons and Dragons, so complete mongs like myself have no difficulty digesting it. At 82 pages, it's quite heavy but there's no wasted space. It's currently on Lulu as a free PDF and you can even buy it there too! Smashing!

Joyously, Swords and Wizardry is new. Odd that might seem but the publish date is 2008. There is a forum that appears to have a reasonable amount of activity for a single game. It's heart warming that a niche old-school game has its own community with enthusiastic types chatting about all aspects of the game. Worth a look.

What I would change

Changing, modernising, and de-table-ifying Swords and Wizardry would ruin it. It has to be old school. It's very aim is to give a glimpse into the past, a time capsule of roleplaying. It's a little too light on images, especially in the monster bit. Mould. Need pictures of mould. I think it's also a shame there there isn't a setting here. It's crying out for a Tolkeinesque affair with Orcs, a dark Lord, hoity-toity Vulcans Elves and tiny people with the fate of the the world in their hands. Would it be an enormous ball ache to produce such a thing? A go on, Matthew, you know you want to.

To conclude

Hurrah for old school gaming. Hurrah for tables for everything. Hurrah for Matthew and the respectful dedication to Gygax. Swords and Wizardry is basic but it works. You get that solid feeling from Swords and Wizardry, the difference between a 70s VW camper van where linkages connect the steering wheel to the wheels and a modern Toyota where elastic trickery and magic does the work. It's not overburdened with rules but each Spell pulls rules in through the back door in the form of tables. Bar that, it's a nice solid base for anyone wanting to build their own setting. Or plunder Tolkein like everyone else. Dig out the old polyhedrals from the bottom of your underpants drawer and get stuck in to gaming the way they did before Star Wars existed.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Asteroid 1618 by Jeff Rients, who has scoffed all the drugs so you don't have to

Asteroid 1618 by Jeff Rients (of the famous Jeff's Gameblog) is a Worldwide Adventure Writing Month (WoAdWriMo) 2007 entry. A science fiction (with a dash of fantasy) adventure set on a planetoid called Asteroid 1618. It's a bonkers romp through the psychedelically fuelled insanity of a broken mind. It's as nuts as it is brilliant. Throw your Sci-Fi campaign players into this adventure and they'll walk out with mouths so wide open that it'll look like their jaw bones have been stolen by an overzealous tooth fairy. Excuse any nonsensical hyperbole you might encounter during this review, it's entirely inspired by Asteroid 1618. It's based on the Encounter Critical (EC) RPG but you really don't need EC to use this adventure.

The setting

Asteroid 1618 exists in the Vanth subsector of the likely future of the human race. Rampantly horny giant space dragons cause smash up the previously sane order of things while two familiarly named human empires the Klengon and the Vulkins make Tolstoy (war and peace) on each other. The Vulkins win and expand with some space travel, even against the control of the Galactic Domination Bureau. The end result is a fractured Vulkin Empire spread across a load of worlds. Confused? Then you're thinking too hard. Just let the lunacy wash over you like a Douglas Adams book, absorb the nonsense and it all starts becoming, well, sense. If you've read the EC RPG page, you'll understand why.

The setting contains a number of 'worlds' that you can lob your characters at. Each one has its own tech level and description, varying remnants of the Vulkin empire. Each planet is a cornucopia of ideas, from planets rammed full of bionically enhanced creatures through the sixth layer of hell (no really, Dante's actual sixth circle of hell) to a human tomb. It's taking every ounce of strenght not to delve into details. You might, as a player, want to hand a link to this review to your brain addled GM to throw into your campaign. Do so at your own risk. And that includes my players. Most of the crazed brain melt occurs on the Asteroid, which has a map and enough background to fuel an entire campaign. There are some additional rules to assist in being on the Asteroid. A domed city is the easy place to play but the rest of the asteroid is fun too - with environmental factors (and low gravity if you were short of humorous hooks) brought in to add flavour. The supplied adventure is crux of the book (as you might expect) having twists, turns and a large spoonful of unhinged-itude. I'd like to say more but it would spoil it for you if you ever planned to run it. If you get bored playing through this largely linear adventure, you probably bathe in beans, peel oranges with your forehead and think the Pixies' 'Where is my mind?' is your biography.

The book

The style is rough-and-ready homebrew (and I'm talking about the sort of homebrew booze you made at University, which could be used as paint stripper), in keeping with the original EC rules. It is a little difficult to read and you might laugh at the simplicity of the graphics but they fit perfectly. They are appropriately placed and contain enough detail. There are some typos and the grammar goes for a tea break now and again but then you must remember that it is a WoAdWriMo, created in a month. Given that, there's 83 PDF pages of content and more than half of that is spent on the adventure, which is a blessing. The daftness does wane in places but not such that the book becomes boring. If Jeff had spent one iota more time on it, then it would cease to be in keeping with the original system, so I can only praise him for the masterstroke of picking EC as a base for his WoAdWriMo entry. It's the sort of thing I wish I'd thought of first.

To conclude

Asteroid 1618 is crackers. A delightfully illogical brainfart. Roleplaying games should not be written to be humorous and, in a way, Asteroid 1618 isn't. It's very serious about its silliness. If you're running a quite straight campaign and you want to incorporate a bit of wackyness in (perhaps for a Christmas bit-of-fun session), you might get the characters on hallucinogens and throw them a bit of 1618. Or perhaps as a multi-session adventure, you might see if the players can play it straight on an Asteroid gone mad, the aim being to keep your sanity when confronted with Rient's unsound mind. It might be a difficult sell if your group are not used to playing in madcap scenarios, if your group turn normal scenarios into madcap ones at the drop of a hat, then they might feel very much at home on Asteroid 1618.

Disclaimer: Jeff, to my knowledge, is not actually clinically insane. Nor has he scoffed all of the drugs. Being a fair man, he'd probably share them out. ;-)

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Lost in Smaragdis by Dariel R. Quiogue

WOAH THERE! Hold on, adventurer! The Legendary Dariel expanded Lost in Smaragdis into the Gods of Gondwane. So I Reviewed that too. Check that one out instead, it's like this but much, much better!

Lost in Smaragdis by Dariel R. Quiogue is a roleplaying game set in a parallel world where the Lost World meets a smorgasbord of historical eras. The core gem of Lost in Smaragdis is (unsurprisingly) Smaragdis, a parallel world filled with Dinosaurs, Conquistador, huge flying machines, Pirates, the remnants of an ancient civilisation and just about any other interesting part of history you can shoe horn into a single document. Reading that aloud sounds like a terrible mess but the setting is glued together solidly. I hope I manage to get that across in the rest of the review. If I don't, please berate me in the comments.

Character Creation

Character creation stomps along the much beaten path: The GM sets the scene, players come up with a concept, decide on abilities, traits, hooks (non-mechanical facets) and so on. A character is defined by a Main Ability (3 dice), which is a single thing that character is best at; Major Abilities (2 dice), which are those things that the character is really good at; Minor abilities (1 dice) are those things that the character can do but aren't really a speciality. As you can see, facets of the character are based around the number of dice, more on this later. Traits are like abilities but they are those things that make you better than other people. I like this mechanic because it augments the abilities. For example, you might choose to have Athletics as an ability but then 'Greased Bloody Lightening' as a trait. You can have up to 3 traits, assigning a number of dice up to each (more later). Hooks are those character quirks and oddities that you might choose to make the character more interesting, such as warts, impatience and so on. They can be physical or mental but do not have a mechanic. Each human character gets 4 health points. Simple as that. Equipment and clothing is then decided before the GM making the final finished adjustments.

There is a great onus on the player and GM to come up with the abilities, traits and so on. There are no large lists of skills and the like. Some may prefer this rules light method, experienced players brimming with imaginative insight will rustle up a character in a thrice.

The system

Is light. A near-zero calorie affair. Your roleplay dietician might recommend you take on extra gaming protein while playing this game else you might become malnourished. If you're a fast and loose personality, this system will be right up your alleyway. Every ability, trait and so on is measured by a number of D20 dice. You declare you action in cinematic sort of manner: 'I spring up out of the bush and dive to leap onto the back of the T-Rex'. By adding that colour, the GM might award some bonus dice, a reward for adding more spirit into the game. It's also recommended that the GM might ask the players how many dice that deserves. A story-telling aspect but not so huge that it might take over.

You roll the number of dice from the most appropriate ability (such as Athletics) and try and beat a target number of any of those dice. The more dice you have, the more likely it will be. Neat. You get to add trait dice too but you can only use them up to the number you assigned. Assign two dice to 'Greased Bloody Lightening' and you get to use it twice that session. A critical is when you roll the same as the target number. The target number is decided by the GM on a best guess but it is recommended that the faster the pace of the action (and thus the faster the thinking of the players), the lower this target should be. I rather like that.

Combat and conflict is performed by escalation. The instigator of the conflict declares the action and the GM sets a ceiling for the opening bid. The instigator 'bids' a target number for it. The opponent then describes a counter action and the target number changes. This goes back and forth until either of those in the conflict elects to roll. The aim here is to get a face paced back and forth of description. The person who elects is likely to be thinking [sarcasm]'Yeah, right, I am sure you are going to be able to do that'[/sarcasm] or run out of ideas. For those interested in a fast narrative and less in the physical tactics of the game, this appears to be a brilliant system. The roll-off is used to determine who gets to narrate the end of the sequence. Damage is simply handled by incapacitating the loser.

The setting

Smaragdis is a delightful setting. Campaign start would revolve around an inland sea called the Emerald Sea basin. Frankly, there is enough here to run an entire campaign and serves as a good example as to what Dariel is trying to achieve. Wildlife own most of it: dinosaurs and giant insects live amongst smaller more recognisable animals. Around the edge of the inland sea are a number of kingdoms, one based on the Spanish Conquistadors, one on French and English privateers (Pirates, really). Others included escaped South American slaves, a race based on the Punic people and Ancient Egyptians too.

As if this wasn't enough, there is an ominous background Ancient Civilisation that left a hugely complex alien machine called the Core, capable of performing acts of 'magic' (although there is no magic per se). To use the machine, sorcerers get hold of Mind Gems and are activated to take control of a number of creatures, speak telepathically or use a range of different functions available from The Core. It's a fascinating idea that I can see working really well, a magical-like system with limits.

One huge benefit of Smaragdis is that to get there, you need to go through a portal. These portals could be from and time and place, which means that you can set your campaign's characters from any period of history (or the future, naturally). It felt that the best choice would be 1930s adventure pulp, Indiana Jones and the like.

How I would change Smaragdis

Smaragdis has all of the elements you might expect from a modern RPG. The book is well laid out 19 pages but the fonts are rather uninspiring. A quick look on 1001 Free Fonts would soon throw up some more exciting type faces. The level of language is high although I think the use of obscure dinosaur names in descriptions is a little jarring. One example involves putting pistols into the mouth of a Mosasaur. I had Google at hand, so it wasn't a problem but if I was reading the book printed, a better mental image may have been constructed using more familiar dinosaurs. The full-steam clash of different times and places, I think Smaragdis would benefit greatly from pictures. Especially in the case of a map of the Emerald Sea. The description is good but a map would really help place the proximity of different cultures.

I would revisit Smaragdis and flesh it out further: hunt down some freebie graphic, add an example adventure, expand on the descriptions of different cultures, build simple equipment lists and grow the list of things The Core can perform. Perhaps governing the weather or other aspects of nature might be fun.

To conclude

Lost in Smaragdis is more a fabulous idea fleshed out into a sumptuous meal rather than a complete game. Even the most unimaginative dullard would have difficulty failing to envisage a campaign based around the Emerald Sea. However, the system leaves a lot to the players and GM, which is fine for those blessed with unstoppable imaginations but for the rest of us shoe-horning a little gaming in after a brain sapping day at work, a little prodding in the form of skill lists named in the spirit of the setting would do wonders. If you're looking for a good campaign setting, then Smaragdis will go a long way to solving that. If you like light rule systems, then they don't get much lighter. If you want something deep to sink your teeth into, then head elsewhere. Dariel has scribed a triumph of an idea in a brief PDF and it may all many GMs need to set up a thrilling campaign, full of daring do and buckled swash. We can only hope that he returns to his pulp creation to plump, polish and perfect.

Update! Rob Lang is shoddy

I should have spent more time googling Lost In Smaragdis. If I had, I would have found out that it was a 24hour RPG project in 2005, which makes the game even more astounding in my mind! I'm going to contact Dariel and try and persuade him to expand it. :)

Update 2013!

If you ask really nicely for something, and I mean really nicely... with flowers and maybe chocolate... you get what you want. No, I didn't manage to copulate with Dariel, I got better. He expanded Lost in Smaragdis to create Gods of Gondwane. What a splendid fellow.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Dominion Rules by MAB

Dominion is a mechanics system for low fantasy and quasi-historical settings. It is a low-crunch rules system written and managed by a Mysterious Anonymous Benefactor (MAB)*. Dominion has a long and varied history that includes contributions from the Illuminators Guild (site unavailable at time of writing). You might as well torch your columns of AD&D and run Dominion instead.


Dominion is based on the D12, which is refreshing. Based around the old friend of roll-under-the-skill-value, and add modifiers. 12 is an automatic fail. There are 6 statistics called Attributes: Vigour, Agility, Stamina, Intuition, Intellect and Luck. Ranged 1 to 4 for humans (other races are available), which seems like a rather low resolution. Luck allows you to choose to have a bonus to any given resolution during a round. Attributes do not change during the game. You do not get smarter, quicker or stronger. Skills are based on Attributes (as you might expect).

There are also three Composite Attributes, which are the sum of two other Attributes. For example, Combat Composite is a combination of the character's Vigor and Agility and controls all the usal fighting, running and gadavanting around. It's very simple to do, add two Attributes together and divide by two. You don't do this often, and rounding is taken favourably. All explained with simple examples. The skill list is far from obscene, detailed and athletic in build. If you were to create your own setting, you'd not need to think very much or add to the list, MAB is far ahead of you. Advancement points..., well, yes.

Character creation

Character creation is performed in six familiar steps: Decide on concept, roll on the generation table (more later), determine the Attributes, calculate the Composite Attributes, work out Advancement Points and apply the advancement points. Each step of character creation is dealt with careful consideration, a running example shows how a character might be built throughout. Characters are not pressed into classes but instead styles (archetypes) are presented to help start the flood of creative juices. The character generation table gives a random bonus to the character. They aren't feats as you can't choose them. The table has different benefits for different races, which is a nice touch.

Attributes are point assigned but there is an element of randomness so some starting characters might have higher attributes than others. Advancement points are then used to bolster those Attributes that you might be worried are a little low to fit your character concept.

Doing stuff (Task resolution)

Each round is constructed from a series of stages. Order of action or initiative (Timing Stage), declaring actions (Strategy Stage), rolling skills (Modifier Stage) and dealing a world of pain (Resolution Stage). Each stage is well described with examples. Combat is an extension to this, with an plethora different actions the characters can take, each well named and focussed on a cinematic stabbing, slashing, singing swords and crunching shields. Injuries come in different types, which reduces the lethality of the system and gives a random from "'Tis but a scratch" territory through to "Look, you silly bastard, you've got no arms left. What are you going to do, bleed on me?". "Magic" is dealt... actually, that's not fair. There is Godly-power through priesthood, which makes priests useful and then Magic, which is the old fashioned witches, wizards and so on. There are 125 spells. Enough to skin your teeth into? Up to the gums.

The book

Dominion's PDF is 301 pages and beautifully laid out in a facing page format. I recommend that if you print out Dominion, you would do well to print 'duplex' (on both sides) else you will have blank pages. The serif font is both appropriate and well type-set, a touch difficult to see on a monitor (read: my rubbish monitor) but prints beautifully. The graphics throughout are stunning. Contributing authors are credited but MAB has done a splendid job collating and placing the images. I do wonder if MAB's true identity is amongst the names. A feature of the self-contained-edness of the book is the inclusion of a fully features fantasy/quasi-medieval armour and weapon lists. In keeping with the rest of the book, every item of equipment is well explained with bonuses and enchantment. Beasts also have their own section with their own actions that can be use, accompanied by an illustrated bestiary. It came as no surprise that the book also includes guidance for creation of your own beasts.

The language is concise and in plain English. If I was a gambling man, I might guess that MAD was a technical or scientific writer.

Thoughts on Dominion

The system uses metric measurements for everything. Being a SI unit loving scientist; being British and Britain being geographically in Europe, you might think I am jumping up and down with joy. But no. I use a horrid mix of miles for distance, feet and inches for height, kilos for weight, feet for altitude, pints for beer, birth speed in cows per square ironing board and so on. I like that Dominion is up front about its units. I'd like to see more items on the generation table. I appreciate that 12 was chosen to keep the dice count low but I think you will find that someone who can get hold of a D12 will have a D20 handy. The audience is likely to be veteran GMs thirsty for something new and free.

It falls into the unfortunate trap of redefining a commonly used terms using Attributes , rather than use 'Stats' and so on. I would argue that it's not really needed to retain individuality. If I were to print the whole book, I'd worry about the page count. The margins are large, as is the text size. Some of the pages have a few words and a vast expanse of white. You would rightly argue that white space makes text easier to read but when you're printing at home, the cost needs some consideration.

MAB admitted that Dominion is on a back burner after filthy pikey cybersquatting scumbags took the original domain and real life got in the way. The website is well produced and I imagine that if MAB wanted to expand it to form a community, he/she/it/borgit would be of a high quality. It's a pity that there isn't a community surrounding Dominion as I think it deserves one.

And finally

Dominion feels like a life work. It has that maturity and depth of a game that has evolved, aged and tightened over time. What throws me about Dominion is that it's nearly a complete game!. Let me qualify that. The system is complete. If you were to pen a setting for Dominion, there's little left to do: a map, some colourful NPCs and a history. As Si Crocker would say: "Bosh, sorted". I am thrown because you expect Dominion to have a setting when you get to the end and it's slightly upsetting that there isn't one. Like then ending of the film Batman The Dark Knight, you're stranded clamouring for more but unfortunately, there isn't any. Ever written your own campaign setting as a GM? You've probably done more than enough to equip Dominion with one. My flailing text isn't doing Dominion justice, I can only hope you giving it a chance will.

* MAB wished to remain anonymous, if you know who MAB is then please do keep it to yourself and let the rest of us retain the thrill of an unsolved mystery. Many thanks!