Tuesday 20 October 2009

News! I'm a Dad, 24 Hour compo gets a People's Choice and 2 lite bite RPGs

In this post, I'll explain why I've been a bit quiet on Twitter recently and why service for the next week or so might be a bit interrupted. The 24 Hour competition I ran with 1KM1KT last May is now accepting votes for a 'People's Choice' (you'll need a forum account for that, sorry) and I spotlight a couple of new games that have appeared from a couple of my favourite authors.

I'm a Dad

Felix Lang, my son, was born last Sunday and as you might expect, I'm terrified, tired and time has taken its leave. He's a lovely screamy little thing and we're going to have some great laughs. As a rather unfortunate side affect, the next two weeks of blogging/tweeting might be a touch sporadic while life settles down. May I thank you in advance for your patience! Next week, I have my guest blogger Jason Kline (Chainsaw Aardvark on 1KM1KT) taking over with a review of the Fallout pencil and paper RPG.

Go and vote 24 Hour RPG Competition People's Choice Award

tygertyger, a 1KM1KTite has organised (entirely indepedently of I) the People Choice Award for the last 24 Hour Competition. It's a splendid idea. The standard of games from the entrants was astronomically high and so more recognition is a good thing. Nominations for five categories were collected from other 1KM1KTites and I've set up polls on behalf of tygertyger. Please do go and show your support by voting for your favourite game and please don't let my reviews taint you. Not that it would, dear reader, you probably look upon my gushing, sycophantic outpourings with healthy cynicism.

Thank you for the Birthday wishes

The comment thread after my lambasting of Icar in my last blog post has had me chortling tears of joy. I particularly liked Jonathan Ridd, who read the review before the introduction and rightly thought I was an utter bar steward. A response I could have only ever dreamed. Thank you to everyone for joining in so whole heartedly.

New games from Great Authors

Only one thing makes me happier than receiving an email from a free RPG author letting me know of a new work - that's a free RPG author emailling me about another new work of theirs. Imagine my frothing joy when two emailled me in a short space of time. For your brunch delectation, may I present two lite bite RPGs worthy of your attention.

Chronicles of the Drenai by Dariel Quiogue

Chronicles of the Drenai is a free fantasy roleplaying game based on David Gemmell's fantasy novels. I'm not familiar with David Gemmell but I discovered that he writes heroic fantasy with a dark edge to it. Dariel's RPG is admittedly lite but has enough roleplay material in there for a Gemmell fan to get a good game out of it. I've been a fan of Dariel's work since
Lost in Smaragdis and although Chronicles of the Drenai contains less of Dariel's fevered imagination (being a fan game, of course) it's still worth a look and has gone in the towering review pile.

The Beast of Limfjord by Nathan Russel

The Beast of Limfjord is a beautifully produced free RPG set in the vikingesque dark ages. It has mythic substance to it, rather than trying to reproduce the dark ages accurately. An unspeakable beast is threatening a village and your heroes have returned from a voyage to deal with it. We've had the pleasure of Nathan's company before. In fact, you're probably sick to death of me blowing sunshine up his bottom in regards to Here Be Gamers and the wonderful steampunk city 24 hour RPG of Verge. When it comes to layout and design in free RPGs, Nathan sits in amongst the elite and The Beast of Limfjord is another excellent example of it. I will review it but I'll probably read and send back some sneaky comments to assist in version 2 - then review that.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

First Birthday - Celebrate by joining me in rubbishing my own game

I have been blogging free RPGs for a year now. 63 posts scribed and 38 games 'reviewed'*. I ran a 24 hour competition, completing my own - Cloudship Atlantis. I've offered advice, started a Dictionary that will one day rival John Kim's and made some great friends.

So, how do I celebrate a year of enthusing and celebrating other people's work? By picking to death my own free game. Think of it as a mix of healthy self critique and an inevitable backlash of being nice for a whole year.

Icar - a dreadful vat of excrement

Icar by Rob Lang is a free science fiction roleplaying game set in a bland, plagiarised future. The fat of other genres has been scraped off and boiled in a stinking vat to produce a stock kitchen sink Sci Fi. Unintelligible rules, disparate formatting and penis inspired space craft are wrapped in a deceptively colourful cover. As we will discover, if you paint a turd then what you end up with is a painted turd.

Character Creation

Icar goes as far to provide a torturously long character creation mechanism that relies upon character classes called 'Skeletons' but fails to provide any. Every familiar term you have become accustomed to in roleplaying has been changed. Classes are 'Skeletons', Attributes are 'Stats' and Skills are... well, Skills but that's purely by accident.

You begin your journey into Icar with defining a character concept. How you are supposed to create a character concept without any idea of how the universe is put together is beyond me. After that, you define your Deviant. A Deviant is a representation of your characters personality. Are you Selfish or Generous? Foolhardy or Prudent? By how much? TELL US NOW! This must all be set from the start - a constricting fascistic approach to character creation. There is no room for exploring the character as you play in the Icar Third Reich.

Statistics can be rolled randomly or point applied (a good example of Rob's indecision - including both systems to bloat an already bursting tome), roll some skills (of which there are hundreds). It goes on. A never ending ocean of options, tables, detail, location based hit points, height, weight, age, hat size and underpant colour and texture. Still with me? Still awake? I forfeited my front teeth when I collapsed against my insufficiently padded keyboard.

Finally, you have the option for rolling randomly for Advantages and Disadvantages (confusingly named Psychotheatrics). Random selection will ruin the character concept you loving crafted at the start. It seems like a cruel final blow in the long struggle to create a character.

All of this is written down on a decimated copse load of paper, the first character sheet looking like the product of teenage nightmare.


Rob is not averse to packing a huge number of different mechanics into a single game. There's one for skills checks. One for close combat. One for firefighting, one for vehicle combat, one for hacking and one for space combat. There might as well be one for doing the dishes and breeding alpacas. Complexity is piled onto complexity, leaving your head spinning and eyes bleeding with the strain.

The close combat system is barely damaging and the weapons make firefighting lethal to the extreme. With no healing rules and no armour in the equipment section, your character can be vaporised in an instant. A horror that sends to back down the snake to square one, character creation. Hacking is so utterly complex that attempting it should be a MENSA entrance exam. It isn't fun. It isn't like hacking. As they say in flying circles: see and avoid.

Robert Lang shuns numbers

The most maddening part of the mechanics is that Rob has arithmophobia. Instead of plainly writing numbers into a nice plain box, you are forced into learning a system of triangles, circles and squares placed in a disc. It's the most senseless waste of game design I've ever had the misfortune to come across. I can write numbers perfectly well, Rob, don't force me to draw little glyphs. This isn't 2000 BC.


Icar is set so far into the future that most Sci Fi fan will lose interest. Although there are no vestiges of the real world, there is enough plagiarism from other Sci Fi it spawned to make you feel uncomfortably at home. Warrior monks with light swords, power armoured military types who are only mentioned in passing, a race of human-created robots hell bent on killing everyone, big nasty corporations, bland criminal organisations and a virtual world. A cornucopia of cliche. An Empire, which pretends to be benevolent but seems to be so all encompassing to be truly so, rules every minutiae of life. Just about every aspect of Icar is recognisable in a jarring, embarrassing sort of way - as if Rob has not realised that he is ripping off decades of Science Fiction.

It gets worse

The artwork is plain and the simply enormous number of unaffordable weapons, vehicles and space craft is mind boggling. One can only imagine that Rob feels inadequate about his genitalia as penis shaped space craft thrust from every page - pages that pleed to be printed. You can't write down a weapon's statistics in Icar, you must deforest the Amazon. Images scythe through the centre of pages, breaking the flow of text and are unlabelled. And a mystery to the reader. There are inexplicable areas of white space and he has clearly never read my guide to organising an RPG. Only the first of three character sheets is provided in the book, so you have to dig around on the website for the others. I have wasted enough time and bandwidth downloading this drivel, I don't want to be forced to return to the drab website to hunt for more things. The author claims that Icar has been playtested, making me want to set up a fund for those forced to endure years of this nonsense.

Where to go from here

The best thing Rob can do is copy the source files onto a hard drive and fire it into the sun. Then, with funding I will happily supply, chase down every printed copy and toss them into the heart of a nuclear reactor.


I can say without any doubt that Icar is definitely one of the most mind bogglingly dreadful roleplaying games I've read. A disparate, disjointed and disappointing mess. Mechanic heavy with no good reason, childishly decorated with penis space craft and teenage wet dream guns. If you have had the misfortune of laying your eyes on this pustule then I can heartily recommend scouring your eyes with bleach and undergoing a double lobotomy to rid yourself of the memory.

* It could be said that I don't really review the games I write about as I only read them. A fair comment. Ironically, the only game I have played is this one - the one I'm pouring scorn onto!

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Wild West John Waynery in Big Hearts in Big Country by CC Chamberlain

Big Hearts in Big Country by C.C. Chamberlain is a wild west roleplaying game that aims to replicate the iconic themes of western movies. Big Hearts has one of the best gun fighter mechanics I've ever read, is beautifully presented and you cannot help become engrossed in the love and attention that has gone into it. I can't see you ever needing another Wild West Game.
[Link directly to the PDF]


Characters in Big Hearts are those heroic, historic do-gooder types. There's filth all over the west (some would argue there still is!) and you are sent in to clean it up. Characters are not specified in Big Hearts, instead they are simply acted. If the GM can describe three words about your character then the difficulty changes given an action. For example, if you have been portraying your cowboy is tender, poetic and quick on the draw and doing so consistantly then the GM will give you a beneficial modifier for seducing the female owner of the saloon.

I have mixed feelings about this mechanic as a replacement to character definition. On one hand it coaxes players into playing a coherent, consistent archetype (something I am in favour of). However it puts a great onus on the player to decide the precise style of their character before play and restricts them from modifying during play to fit into the team.


The GM sets a target number, 10 being the start. You're aiming to roll over that. If your character is believable, you get a negative (beneficial) modifier. The player can then deliver an Acting Job, which urges the player to perform the scene, adding futher modifiers. The dice are then rolled and if the outcome is dreadful then you can spend Goodwill or Clout*.

Goodwill is a representation of how much of a good guy you are and is represented in white poker chips. You can only use Goodwill in positive, 'Good Guy' interactions. A player performs another Acting Job and the GM decides how much Goodwill needs to be spent to pass the check. You use these chips to reroll the dice you don't like. Goodwill can also be used to wrestle control of the narrative. Clout is represented with Blue chips and performs the same object but is used when you want to be mean.

Gun fights are a an entertaining physical affair. You sit on one hand, put the other on a deck of cards and then stare down your opponent. You overturn the cards in your deck, some face up and some face down and then when you think you've got a high value series of cards then you start turning over all the face down cards, roll dice and then reach for a bandana in the middle of the table. Exciting stuff. I'm butchering the brilliance here. As a favour to C.C., please do download Big Hearts and give it a read. Then give it a play.

Sample Adventure

Without me needing to blither on about a lack of setting, C.C. has kindly provided a sample adventure! A sample adventure! Let me exclaim thrice: A sample adventure. And by goodness it's a goody. It's got everything in there: bad baddies, good goodies, a mission, a mercantile and splendid description all. C.C. has also provided plot hooks.

24 Hours and then some

To my overspilling delight C.C. returned to his 24 hour concoction and tweaked, expanded and painted with more grace than was possible in the first 24 hours. The original 24 hour core was excellent but the revised edition is a more polished delight. The layout and graphics are excellent and although it makes for slightly daring printing (a toner killer) the effort that went into giving the book real flavour is obvious.

And next

I would like a character sheet, not for statistics perhaps but instead for recording derring dos, bounties collected or gunfights won. Some kind of record. Perhaps a criminal record? Perhaps a place to record Clout and Goodwill between sessions? Just something. I would like the background to be a shade or two lighter to improve contrast and reduce the toner bashing on printing. Oh and I want another version. Bigger. Better.


Big Hearts in Big Country is an innovative Wild West game that goes above and beyond the call of duty. Mechanics and setting are woven together inextricably. I would happily set C.C.'s game on a pedestal as an example of why you should carefully craft a mechanic to support and uplift a setting. A superb work, many thanks for sharing it with us, C.C.

* I chortled merrily with nostalgic reminiscence when I read 'Clout'. Back when I pretended to attend University, a friend once festered a vat of homebrew 'beer' under the stairs of his dank Victorian townhouse. He referred to it as "Clout". Rightly named too, it managed to floor a mountain of a man whose unenviable party trick was to drink a pint of his own vomit and sing God Save the Queen.