Aug 202013
 

victorianaBy Shorty Monster

As I’ve mentioned once or twice, this last month has been pretty damned hectic for me, so a few things have sadly fallen by the wayside. I have just about managed to keep regular postings on this page, but almost everything else has been put to one side until I can give the various projects I’ve taken on the time and effort they deserve.

One such thing is my attention towards the rather excellent, and massively anticipated third edition of the Steampunk role playing game Victoriana by those lovely people over at Cubicle 7. For a full disclosure and to explain why I’m annoyed that this one has taken me so long to get round to, I was sent a free copy of this book for review purposes. After hinting pretty damned heavily that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. So sorry everyone for the delay, I know it would have been better for another positive review to be out there before Gencon, but this will have to do.

To make up for it, I’ll be doing what I did for my review of Kuro, breaking it into several bits, each being about a significant proportion of the main rule book. Today then we’ll be starting with the setting and background section, The Encyclopaedia Victoriana.

As a history nerd – seriously, check out how many articles I’ve written about historical weapons – it’s hard to describe just how much fun I had reading this section. They cover things as one would expect for an alternative history book; in broad strokes. But there’s detail in there, and a lot of it is their own, but some of the stuff they’ve put in there had me breaking out in a huge grin. I don’t want to start listing them here (there were loads of them) but they were all brilliant, and impressed me with the level of research that must have been put into this section.

I do have to point out one thing that I wasn’t 100% happy about. I know that their world is very different too ours, and that there is more to the sapient races than just humanity. I think this is a great selling point for the game, and is handled with considerably more style than I think Shadowrun ever managed. Each race – not species – has a particular place within the social landscape. The Eldren sitting at the top, with Ogres usually at the bottom (links seem to go to an older wiki that may not be up to date with the current edition, and are used only for descriptive purposes). I also understand the need to change things a bit, and that there is no reason why they should stick faithfully to something when it serves no purpose. But Napoleon was actually taller than I am, so casting him as a Dwarf was a little bit strange…

The way it’s all tied together makes for a damned entertaining read too. Historical narrative can sometimes be a bit of a pain to read if it it’s written poorly, and this is some very good writing indeed. They break things down by event, and present them as mini case studies done first hand from the point of view of a character within their world. And it such a well realised world too. Page after page for the various countries and nations that exist, and even a few that don’t, at least not in our world.

What surprised me, as I haven’t played previous incarnations of the game due to lack of opportunity, was how important religion is, and how much was written about it. They go to some lengths to make sure that the readers know to differentiate between real world religions and the “fictional”* ones that they’ve created. Although there are similarities, and it’s pretty easy to see where they’ve taken inspiration from each of the three Abrahamic faiths, along with a few others, each is different enough that it doesn’t come across as a lazy pastiche.

So far then – and you may have noticed that I’ve kept actual content to a minimum to avoid spoilers – I’m absolutely loving the book. The layout makes it pleasure to read (I do like books with fully justified margins) and the writing is top notch. This is what I’ve come to expect from Cubicle 7 though. Each and every one of their games has been great to just sit down with and devour while sipping from a mug of hot chocolate.

Next time I’ll be looking at character creation, and as such a few bits of the system too. Hopefully the gap in reviews won’t be as long as the gap between acquisition and this one, and since work has calmed down somewhat, hopefully it should be within a week. Until then, feel free to pick up a copy for yourself. In fact, if you know me at all, I’d really appreciate it, as I would love to get the chance to play this game, based on what I’ve seen so far.

* Sorry, my atheistic side comes out around now, and I struggle to think of any any religion as being anything other than fictional.

Victoriana 3rd Edition is available from:

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Mar 012013
 

1845710[1]By Shorty Monster

As a lot of my audience will know, this blog is set to start actually making me some money soon. Well, to be clear, not the blog per se, just the fact that I have built up an audience that includes a few people willing to pay a little bit for some of my writing. That being said, I still lack the kind of money that will allow me to go in on kickstarters that look amazing. What I do have though, is the aforementioned audience, and a willingness to tell every last one of you how much I like a product when I come across something that’s this rad (yes, I’m taking that word back from the late eighties).

Today then it’s time to turn our attention to Modiphius. A company that dropped onto my radar with two very intriguing words; Achtung! Cthulhu. Although I’m not a big Second World War aficionado, my interest running to military conflicts considerably earlier than that, I am a huge fan of horror gaming. That means that not being a fan of everything Lovecraftian would be a bit if a sin. So I had to take a closer look at this Kickstarter, and the whole line up of products. Before we get into the review, I want you all to head on over and check out the kickstarter. It’s already funded, so you know you’re going to get something out of it, and the rate they’re nailing stretch goals means that for putting up a bit more cash, you’re going to get some pretty sweet loot out of it. Are you back? How cool is all that swag? And now, on to the review.

Three Kings is the first of the Zero Point adventures, and apart from needing a core rule book, you have everything required to play the adventure within its pages. I personally have the the Call of Cthulhu version, although it is available for other systems, notably Savage Worlds and Trail of Cthulhu. All of this is a very good idea, as it quickly became clear that for most people, the game will be a lot more action oriented than the slow, more cerebral investigations CoC players may be used to. The fact that it’s set during one of the largest – and most defining – conflicts of the twentieth century should give you an idea that more than a slight tussle in a library might break out. Having read the adventure cover to cover though, this never takes away from the unknowable dread that marks out Lovecraftian horror games from the rest of the crowd.

The layout and art style used for this adventure are beyond beautiful; with cryptic messages scrawled into the margins and beneath some truly splendid maps, the care attention to detail shines through with even the most cursory of reads. As you get under the skin of the adventure, this obvious love of the source material – both Mythos based and inspired by actual stories of WWII – shines through. Time is taken to talk about the real life heroes of the war, and the deprivations of its worst villains. All this while keeping the story firmly grounded in the horror I’d expect from a product with the word Cthulhu on the cover.

The adventure itself is a well written narrative chain of events, without ever making the players feel railroaded into following a plot thread that wouldn’t make sense to them. From the beginning, the writer – Sarah Newton – takes the time to set up three ways for the adventure to begin, meaning that the players control just how combat/investigation heavy the plot will start out as. Sure, it’s likely to involve a bit more combat than I’d expect in CoC game, but even the more cerebral parties should have no problem circumventing a lot of conflict if they choose to do so. At several points throughout, it is made clear that the players should be allowed to dictate pace and mood to a certain degree, with the Keeper being told to go along with any reasonably well thought out solution that the Investigators come up. This should be a lot more common in published adventures, as it does a great job of empowering the players.

6844859-300x220[1]Although the investigators are free to generate their own characters, there is a selection in the back of the book that are better suited to a more military themed game, and I would advise Keepers to utilize them, at lest if they are relatively inexperienced with running CoC games. The other handouts are superb too. The maps and dossier that are available are of very high quality, and would help bring this game of espionage to life.

In conclusion, this is a cracking adventure, and really makes me itch to get a group together to play it. The following adventures in this series have already made their way to my wish list, and the addition of the keeper and Investigator guides would be ideal, as they then open up this wonderful world for groups to explore at their own pace, with stories created just for them. All in all, this is very highly recommended, and if you have the means, you should get on the Kickstarter while you have the chance.

Achtung! Cthulhu. Zero point Adventure: Three Kings is available from:

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Feb 082013
 

kuro-cover-500-233x300[2]By Shorty Monster

Welcome back everyone to this, the final part of my review of Kuro, published by Cubicle 7. If you’re feeling a little left behind, all of the previous reviews can be found by clicking the following links. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. This will be a slightly shorter review than the others, mainly because a lot of the things that excited me about the last part of the book are chock full of spoilerific goodness, and I don’t want to ruin the surprise for anyone who clicks the word Kuro above and buys their very own copy of this awesome game. So, broad strokes for this one then…

First off we get some great pieces of inspiration in the form of several secret societies and clans that one could encounter while playing Kuro. The descriptions given are short and to the point, leaving a lot up the GM about how to write them into a campaign and even how to present them. What’s never missing though is a seed of inspiration. Without fail I could think of a use for every group in this section, and there were a couple that I think could be seeds for an entire campaign without too much effort. This is exactly the kind of thing I want, and one of the reasons why I don’t tend to buy full expansions for games these days; give me some basics, then I want the game’s designers to trust me to do something with their product, and not prescribe to me exactly what I should be doing with it..

Following on from this we get some choice nasties to play around with. These run the gamut of ghostly apparitions, creatures from Japanese mythology, and even a Lovecraftian feeling horror or two. All very well done, with stats beneath the descriptions; and these cover motivations, personalities and the physical look of the creatures too. Again, we have plenty to work with here, but I found myself thinking of them more as bad guys to be inserted, rather than plot hooks. Might just be me though…

We also get some Kuro themed GMing tips. This seems like quite standard fayre, but with some nice touches. Kuro probably won’t play like most other games, due to the characters you will be playing and their individual motivations. Time is well spent here going over this section in detail to give yourself an idea of everything that is possible, and how to avoid falling into some clichés of the genre. We also have a whole bunch of examples of the genre, and again, this is worth paying attention to, as everything could be used for more plot hooks and ideas.

We end with a introductory adventure, and I don’t want to spoil anything other than to say that it looks like a very strong way indeed to get a disparate bunch of people into the thick of the action without too much exposition as to the whys and wherefores. Based on my own experience of character creation – done before reading the adventure – there would be little to no challenge getting him involved in this plot, and I think the same could be said for any character that could be created.

All in all then, a rather nifty end to the book. Setting the GM up very well indeed for whatever concepts get thrown at him, and making sure that they should have no problem maintaining the right amount of fear and suspense.

Feb 062013
 

kuro-cover-500-233x300[1]By Shorty Monster

For those just joining us, you might want to jump back a few pages, and take a look at the previous parts of this review, looking at the setting information, and character creation. Now, if you’re all caught up, we’ll take a look at how the system works.

Carrying on from character creation, you will remember that each character has a list of eight traits, spit into mental and physical, and a whole bunch of skills and specialisations. All these numbers are used to work out the likelihood of passing or failing to perform anything other than simple actions. To give you an example, I’m going back to my still unnamed spoilt brat gambler kid I made earlier. Although his primary focus is his gambling hobby, I picked out a couple of extra skills that would be useful for him. Within the ‘Deception’ skill group, gambling was an easy choice to turn into a specialty, but right there next to it was sleight of hand. Had to be done really didn’t it? In a situation where the character needed to palm a card and replace it to give himself even a chance of staying at the table, he would need to make a skill roll. Difficulty would be set by the GM and then the dice would be rolled.

As this is a test of manual dexterity, the base statistic is easy to determine, but the game encourages creativity in this regard, with no solid tie-in between skill and trait, instead allowing the players and GM the chance to play to their strengths, wherever able. In this case it’s fairly straightforward, but there could be an argument made to use Charisma instead to distract the other gamblers, but that might be a stretch. So, we take the trait number, and grab that many six sided dice; in my case a paltry two. We then take a look at the score I have in the skill. Deception comes in at three points, which would be correct for any specialisation that falls under it, unless you’ve whacked a few specialisation points in it as well. I did that very thing and raised my sleight of hand to lofty height of four. This means I have no ‘Gimikku’ (gained if a specialisation hits five points) to give me any extra bonuses to this roll, so lets just take a shot at it. I roll both d6, and add the skill rank to the total.

Here’s where it gets interesting though, and reminds why I love games where the system becomes more than just a means of randomising success, and instead adds to the feel of the setting. Not only does it throw in my favourite mechanic – that of the ‘exploding dice’ – but it adds its own touch. In Japanese, the number four is ‘Shi’, which also means, quite literally, death. This means that any roll of a four on a d6 is not included in the final score. Might seem harsh, but what with exploding dice, I think it should balance out with no real problems. It also gave me an idea for a particularly sinister house rule.

Imagine a skill check that is almost too important to fail, but fail it does. All because of the player staring down at the dreaded number four on his freshly rolled dice. If the four was included, they would have just scraped by. If only there was something to be done. As the GM, you offer to put that malevolent die back into contention, on the understanding that Death will notice, and seek recompense. Maybe not straight away, and maybe not to anyone immediately connected to the PC, but Shi will take its due…

You must also take into account the degree of any success or failure based on how far away the result was from the target number, but this is simple maths and should not impede game play at any time. All this sounds great so far, but as mentioned in the last review, there are five different ‘Gimikku’ and I think that until the players get a few games under their collective belts, this could slow things down without a cheat sheet for each player. A minor quibble at most though, as I think the system stands up very well, both in how it allows players a certain freedom to play to their strengths, and how well it helps with immersing the players into a highly superstitious game world.

Combat works much the same as regular skill checks, although a lot more of them will be opposed checks, which work exactly as you would imagine them to. One addition I do like though is the simplicity of the combat manoeuvres that are available. In either close combat or at range, you can choose to sacrifice accuracy for damage or vice versa. Both are simple to work out, and mean that players can once again adapt to suit the strengths and weaknesses of their characters. Add to this a bunch of situational modifiers that should be fairly standard to most people who’ve played an RPG with a tactical combat system, and you’re done.

So far, I have to say that I’m loving what I’ve been reading. the system seems to flow quickly while being easily adaptable to the fluid situations one would expect to encounter, and even a few one might not. Number of dice plus modifier might seem a less than simple way to calculate a chance of success, but having played original Deadlands for several years, I can attest to how quickly it becomes second nature. There’s just one bit left of this review, and if I get the chance I will treat you all to the GM’s section by the end of the week.

Kuro is available from:

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Jan 232013
 

kuro-cover-500-233x300[1]By Shorty Monster

Welcome back everyone to the next thrilling installment of my review of the wonderful little game Kuro, brought to you by the fine fellows Cubicle 7 Entertainment. I left you last time with a taste of what the world was – Japanese horror mixed with cyberpunk – and how it was presented to you by the book. Following straight on from there we get to character generation, so I thought I would give it a shot myself.

If anyone has read my Gnome Stew competition entry, they will know that I’m hoping to run this game myself at some point this year, so I had a rough idea about the type of character I would expect to see. For this example, I thought I would try for a spoiled little rich kid. Someone with no issues in his life who just indulged in his hobbies while the world around him was falling apart. Little would he expect that before long, his own existence would prove to be just as fragile as a house of cards, and when you have more to lose, it can be a lot more painful when it finally collapses.

So, the first thing the book asks for is a concept. That was sorted pretty quickly, along with age and social standing. Next we work out the points allotted for the characteristics based on our young buck’s age. I had decided to make him younger than the average character; this would mean a slightly smaller pool of points, but since I wanted him to be naive and sheltered, this made perfect sense. What comes next in the book, that doesn’t make so much sense. After telling you how many characteristics there are, and how many points you have to spend on them, there is no indication of what these characteristics are until several pages later. I kind of understand why they dropped some pregens in here now; if people wanted to get straight into a game it’s useful to have them good to go. I wasn’t looking for anything pre-created though, so there was a lot of scrolling back and forward through the pdf to get to the info that I needed. Once you get over that jump though, the information is very well presented in a way that makes sense. The stats are laid out nice and neatly, and the derived attributes are easy to work out and are all pretty intuitive. If you’re curious, I took a hit to a couple of stats to get higher scores in some key areas, and ended up with the fewest hit point it is possible to get, but a bloody high defence score.

Next we turn to the skills, and once again I was cursing my choice to play a younger character. The game lays it right out there that doing so will be a hindrance, and should only be done with the GM’s permission, so It was in fact my own foolish choice. Skills in Kuro are split by type, and your skill points are distributed into these categories. Each set has a list of skills beneath it, and each is now set to the level of points you have put into the whole group. For instance, I picked the firearms skill set, and set it to three points. I wanted to be able to play with handguns a bit better than that though, and luckily, Kuro had me covered.

After assigning skill points, you get specialisation points. Since each skill set has a list of individual skills, you can chose to excel in certain specific fields. In my case, I whacked three specialisation points into handgun – bringing the score up to six – and then could only hope my character could lay their hands on one. With my other points distributed amongst the skills and specialisations I wanted, it was time to move on.

Or should I say back a bit, because once again, having the pre generated archetypes in the book before I had finished creating one of my own had confused me. Next to a lot of the specialisations on the archetype, there would be an extra word in brackets. I had to scan back a couple of times, even resorting to a search on the pdf until I was convinced I hadn’t just missed something, and could carry on. Eventually I found out what these mystery words alluded to, and was pleasantly surprised. For each specialty taken above a certain level, you can choose a special trick for it, like adding an extra dice, or a permanent bonus. Lovely idea thinks I, and so I spend a few more minutes adding in some extra words. Not many, but if you’re going to create a standard character, you do get a lot more options. How this will play out during the game remains to be seen, and I can picture the need for crib sheets to begin with to remind the players what each word gives them, but we shall to wait and see…

Final touches next, and this means shopping. Luckily the game assumes that people will have the basics, plus whatever else they would be expected to have for their chosen career. I know a lot of people who find sifting through equipment lists to be the height of tedium, so they could probably jump right past this. I like equipping a character though,so I lost a good couple of hours going through the wares on offer. I have to say, Kuro shines when it gets the chance to dazzle me with cyber tech.

Page after page of things and stuff, with plenty of price lists and stat lines for people who only want the basics, and well written details for people like me. I particularly liked the inventiveness which they’ve applied to making this game feel so fundamentally cyberpunk. I could wax lyrical on this for another thousand words, but my word count is already starting to look strained under the pressure, so I’ll just say that the time was well spent, and I totally winter stealing some ideas from this for my current game. Honest. I would have preferred a few more pictures of some of the more outlandish pieces of future tech, but that’s a personal issue, and I’m not the one paying for artists.

Apart from the fine tuning, that’s all you need to know about breathing some life into a Kuro character. All in all, ignoring my shopping spree, I was done in a little over half an hour, and I can’t see even inexperienced gamers taking too much longer. If you are planning creating the entire group in one sitting though, I would advise you to make a little character generation pack for each player, with the derived stats calculations and the two pages of skill lists on it. Otherwise you’ll be spending most of the time waiting for the players to pass the book round to each other.

I’ll continue the review next week, looking at the rules of play. For now though, this game still receives two very enthusiastic thumbs up from me.

Dec 222012
 

kuro-cover-500-233x300[1]By Shorty Monster, a member of the G*M*S Magazine Network.

I have had my eye on this little beauty for a while, and when a couple of twitter people I follow started talking about it, I just had to ask if there was a way to get my hands on a review copy of it. Quite selfishly, I also wanted it to run the game at some point. I get a huge kick out of running horror RPGs, and my regular readers will know that I’m currently GMing a CP2020 game for my local gaming society. Seriously, they couldn’t have designed a game to grab my attention better, without rubbing some Steampunk all over it…

Luckily, one of the Tweeps that was talking was the lovely Cubicle 7 twitter account (@cubicle7), who kindly winged me the download code for my very own pdf of said game. Big thanks go out to them for sending me this; as they said themselves, they’re reticent to give out too many review copies as they don’t get that many reviews done. Well, I’m not quite done reading it yet, but what I’ve read so far has been not only killer, but well worth talking about, so with no further ado, lets get into Kuro

What I have read so far is the setting info, which I’m breaking into three parts, and takes up over sixty pages of the book. Some of you might be thinking that this is a bit much, but I love spending a good old chunk of reading time on setting the scene, rather than jumping in too early and then having the setting information drip fed to me in the middle of pages that really should concern themselves more with the system.

The first part is a captivating bit of prose fiction to set the scene in a ‘Show it, don’t tell it’ kind of way. You’re introduced to what is clearly a player character and their sidekick, as they travel through the cyberpunk streets of Tokyo, or Shin-Edo, to give its current name. These are wonderfully described, along with snippets of back story dropped into get the reader thinking about the setting and stories that could be told within it, right from the get go. I always like seeing these intro chapters as I think they do away with the need for a ‘what is role playing’ section. Sadly the game designers didn’t agree with me, and popped one up there anyway. That, along with a glossary of terms that really should be in the back of the book, were the only things I was a bit let down by.

After that we get some description of the actual back story; a very well thought out idea that opens the door to not only cyberpunk genre’d storytelling, but a whole host of horror ideas too. You can play around with cyberpunk styled body-horror, serial killing splatterpunk, supernatural ghost stories, and even Lovecraftian otherworldly eldritch horrors. In other words, perfect for me, and any other fans of horror RPGs. You get tastes of the advances in technology and how it affects the lives of the people condemned to stay in Shin-Edo. All this is good, but on occasion goes over a little bit of ground from the prose piece; not a bad thing though, as I know from other gamers that not everyone likes, or  even bothers to read, the fiction at the top of a book.

Finally we have a lot more detail on the city itself. It is broken down into ‘quarters’, but ‘wards’ seem a better choice of word, as there are considerably more than four of them. Each has its own feel, along with personalities and places of note. It is worth pointing out here a great trick they pull throughout this whole first quarter of the book. Often in RPG rule books, box out text plays a part in the setting info. More often than not it breaks up the narrative flow as it is dropped in seemingly at random. Not so with Kuro. Time has obviously been taken to fit it into the world they are weaving, with thought being given to such fine touches as the frame on the text box making sense for what is inside it. They are all worth reading, as they drop hints and clues about what could be encountered within the city, and even give GMs some great plot seeds. If I’m honest, I’ve already stolen one of them for my own cyberpunk game…

So, what do I think so far? I ruddy love it! I know that I’m pretty much the perfect GM to be reviewing this type of RPG as it ticks so many boxes in what I look for in a setting, but it could still have been handled badly. The pdf is gorgeous though, with stunning art, and some great layouts, along with writing that pops. Sure, there is a typo or grammatical error here and there, but translated work can be forgiven as long as it doesn’t become a constant issue. I’m really looking forward to getting my teeth into character creation, and then the system as whole, but – faithful readers – that will have to wait until the new year.