The Ring Reforged

Cubicle 7’s history, as is the often the case with RPG publishers who base significant chunks of their portfolio on licensed settings, has had its share of ups and downs. They decided to not renew their licence with Chaosium, leading to the end of their Call of Cthulhu-compatible lines like The Laundry and Cthulhu Britannica and prompting them to provide partial refunds to backers of the World War Cthulhu: Cold War Kickstarter due to them being unable to complete one of the books. Then they lucked out and picked up the licence to the new Warhammer 40,000 RPG, Wrath & Glory, after Ulisses North America dropped it, which would see them put out a revised core rulebook which significantly improved the game after Ulisses’ rather muddled original rollout.

Perhaps the most dramatic twist when it comes to Cubicle 7-related IP news of late, however, has been the end of their licence for The One Ring, the Middle-Earth RPG penned by Francesco Nepitello for Sophisticated Games. In its original version, The One Ring did a masterful job of presenting a system for Middle-Earth gaming which felt true to Tolkien’s distinctive themes and atmosphere, especially compared to previous official Middle-Earth RPGs. (Whilst MERP still has its advocates, I still feel that it feels more like diet Rolemaster than it does a distinctly Tolkien-ish fantasy RPG.) It also inspired Adventures In Middle-Earth, a conversion of the material to 5E D&D which you’d have thought would be a licence to print money.

One would think that Cubicle 7 would have done whatever it took to keep the licence, especially since I know for a fact they had more products planned – I’d heard from them at Dragonmeet back in the pre-pandemic age that they’d been developing a lavish boxed set detailing Moria, and they’d also been previewing a second edition of the game. The licence would eventually make its way to Free League, publishers of recent hit games like Mutant: Year Zero, Tales From the Loop, and the Alien RPG, and after a blockbuster Kickstarter hard copies of their second edition of The One Ring have begun issuing forth.

This hasn’t been without hiccups. One of the dice used in The One Ring is the Feat Die: a D12 with 1-10 numbered, the Eye of Sauron on the 11 spot, and a G-for-Gandalf rune on the 12. You can, of course, perfectly easily just use a normal D12, of course, but dice sets were part of the Kickstarter stretch goals and of course made sense to put in the new starter set for the game. Unfortunately, the initial run of dice for 2nd edition has been misprinted – instead of being numbered 1-10, they’re numbered 2-11, with the Eye of Sauron replacing the 1, not the 11. A simple mistake easy to adjust for (simply read the 11 as 1, or get a permanent marker of the right colour and colour the die in), but it’s still an embarrassing and unfortunate error. Free League have done what they can to fix it – they’re going to offer either replacement dice or store credit – and they are revising their quality control processes to stop it happening in future. Were the other components similarly botched, or has The One Ring risen again to bring us all and in the darkness bind us?

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The Terralon Diary, Part 2: Crow Selection Phase

Time to check in again on my experience working through The Gates of Terralon, a linear RPG experience presented in the form of a desk calendar. Last time, I kicked off the early-year tutorial, and this time I’m going to cover the rest of it.

On the 8th/9th January (remember, Saturday and Sunday are on the same page), there’s not much to do but roll a Constitution check to not lose my lunch going through the dimensional gate, which I succeed. Fine, cool, one step closer to making a horrible hubristic mistake by trying to destroy the demon realm with a big magical bomb.

10th January has me giving a pep talk to my troops, which I succeed at – meaning I’ll get a bonus on my rolls in the combat that happens on 11th January. That proves handy, because it’s a tough fight against no less than 4 demons, but I end up slaying two of them and taking damage from the other two (prompting me to quaff my healing potion). Then a series of unlucky rolls meant I got battered by the flying boss demon on 12th January.

13th January offered an honest to goodness dungeon crawl: the sheet for the day shows a little map with each room numbered, and I have to pick my route through the dungeon and resolve the rooms I go through. It ends up being zero-sum: I successfully find a healing potion in a demonic sacrificial altar, which I instantly quaffed (erm, seems a bit dodgy to be drinking potions sourced from there but OK, I won’t pass up 4HP) and then I failed to defend myself against a monster and lost the hit points the potion gave me.

14th January is a couple of skill checks: the first determines whether or not I get a small penalty to the second one, the second one determines whether I lose 2HP to an ambush from a demonic guardian or not. This feels kind of low-stakes to me, so let’s move on to 15th/16th January where I fight the demonic gate guardian.

The demonic gate guardian is a big titty spider lady. She looks rather feral and I think she’s meant to be topless; the illustration of her here doesn’t show nipple, but I wouldn’t confidently say it’s 100% unambigiously safe for work either, which feels like a weird choice for a game presented in a desk calendar which could conceivably be used in someone’s workplace. Anyway, I evade her bite but still take a bunch of damage as she squeezes me with her many legs, like she’s Pris from Blade Runner multiplied by four or something. I am very low on hit points now, but I am just about hanging in there, so come the 17th January I get to the end of the tutorial – intact, but barely. The bomb is set and we cut away right as it’s about to go off. Everything’s going to be fine, right? No need to worry about Commander Barrington just because we’ve not witnessed the cosmos-shattering kaboom, right?

That means come 18th January we get to pick our main character for the actual quest! The Sundial Games website provides rules for generating your own character if you wish, but I think I’ll pass. They have apparently been doing modelling runs and, per the Kickstarter update they posted on the subject, they found that more than half of all the characters produced fully randomly ended up dying way more often than intended, but they also found that if they made custom characters whose abilities had good synergy with each other they vastly outperformed the pregens. If it’s too easy to miss the sweet spot, maybe the rules need a bit more refinement?

In addition, given that the whole ethos of the game is that you do a little bit of play per day rather than sitting down and poring over a character gen system, I’m more than happy to grab a pregenerated character so all the work is done for me. Neatly, the companion booklet not only provides a large version of the character sheets, and the background blurbs, but also provides the higher-level versions of the characters.

Anyway, if the system hadn’t already had ample D&D 5E influence, the various pregens on offer seem to be very much the sort of quirky character beloved by the kids these days, with aesthetics and creature types often clearly lifted from existing D&D lore with suitable names changed. You have a warforged machine-person artificer, a human “cleric” who is clearly intended to be a paladin (don’t think Wizards can control the use of paladin, buds), a dragonborn draakon elementalist wizard, a tabaxi feline monk, a kenku avian necromancer, and a tiefling half-demon swashbucker.

I’m going to go with Mori’an Corvus, the avian necromancer, mostly because his backstory is hilarious:

Mori’an was born with a unique gift. As a hatchling, he pushed a younger sibling out of the nest to see what would happen. When she died from the fall, he was there to bring her back from the dead. He has been fascinated with death ever since.

And there, with our selected pregen travelling to the settlement of Graycliff to take part in a tournament there, I think I will leave things off for the time being. I think I will do my next episode of this series to cover the rest of January, and then from there switch to a monthly update schedule.

The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 7)

It’s time for another entry in my infrequent series of Fighting Fantasy gamebook reviews. This time around, we’re going to wrap up the rest of the series’ gamebooks from 1986. We’re now four years after the series has released, but there’s a sense that the early boom is beginning to plateau – six gamebooks were released in 1986 (two of which I reviewed in my previous article in this series), but that’s less than the 1985 peak (7 mainline gamebooks plus the final volume of Sorcery!), and the quality is starting to get a bit hit and miss.

This time around, I’m going to get to cover four gamebooks from four different authors, each of whom applies a different approach to their gamebook-writing craft. The main common factor is, as always, that in whatever the scenario is YOU are the hero…

Trial of Champions

Scenario

Ian Livingstone’s first Fighting Fantasy book since Temple of Terror is a sequel to Deathtrap Dungeon. Baron Sukumvit has redesigned his infamous dungeon and is offering his challenge once again. You have no intention of participating – but Lord Carnuss, the Baron’s good-for-nothing brother, has his eye on the prize purse! He therefore has kidnapped a range of warriors – including you – and sets them against each other in a grand elimination tournament until only one is left. The sole survivor will be Carnuss’ champion in the Deathtrap Dungeon challenge; should you survive, it is only by mastering Baron Sukimvit’s maze that you’ll have a chance to take down Lord Carnuss. There, nice and simple.

Continue reading “The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 7)”

The Terralon Diary, Part 1: Are You Sure Blowing Up Bits of the Cosmos Is a Good Idea, My Liege?

Hello folks, as promised I’m going to spend 2022 working my way through The Gates of Terralon, a linear RPG experience presented in the form of a desk calendar. Here’s how the first week of that went.

Office tear-off desk calendars, of course, often combine Saturday and Sunday into one sheet, and the Quest Calendar series is no exception, so since this year starts on a Saturday we’re off to a slow, gentle start. The calendar opens by explaining to us that before we choose a PC, we’ll go through a short tutorial section playing an assigned character just for that part, and encouraging us to familiarise ourselves with the rules for this first couple of days. OK, fair enough.

3rd January introduces us to our character for this tutorial: Commander Royce Barrington, commander of the king’s armies in the fight against a rampaging demon horde. No character sheet is given for him in the accompanying hero book, since we’ll only be playing him for a bit – his stats are on the back of the sheet for 3rd January – but I will use the blank sheet in the Hero Book to record his stats since it’s a bit sturdier than the 3rd January sheet (and it gives me an early chance to see how wipe-clean the markers actually are).

4th January finds the King explaining our mission to us: apparently we’re going to do a surgical strike which will shut down the demons’ link to our world, leaving them unable to enter. Apparently the King and I are both devotees to the god of Law but regard the existence of demons as a sort of divine mistake, so I guess we’re going to eat a big heap of hubris by the end of the scenario.

As the King explains the mission, we roll our stat bonuses on 1D4. The stats are the standard D&D stats, so I suspect the system is going to turn out to be a take on 5E with some of the D&D sacred cows like stats scaling from 3-18 removed – kind of like how True20 also reduced stats to just bonuses, though by my recollection True20 doesn’t randomly generate stat bonuses on a flat die roll – something you do here, and which will seem to result in swingier stats because you lose the bell curve. That said, all my stats are 2s and 3s – the teeny tiny D4 that came with my set doesn’t roll that well, then again D4s generally don’t.

Something I also noted today is that the sheets in the hero book are very good at the whole wipe-clean thing – maybe too good. I’m left-handed, so I kept smudging out stuff as I wrote, and I worry that if I flip to another page in the book to consult the rules I’ll end up smudging my sheet. Probably good that I retained the rules sheets from the calendar for quick consultation too.

5th January is easy enough – it’s weapon selection time. Weapon choice determines an attack bonus, a defence total, and a damage die: I chose a Greataxe, which doesn’t have the best damage but offers decent attack and defence scores. Then on 6th January we get our first skill check – a survival roll to see how our journey to the Sun Temple where our mission is to take place goes in terms of ration consumption. Again, 5E influence is seen here – we have to roll a D20, add our Wisdom modifier, and remember to add our bonus for being an expert at survival stuff. (Neatly, the skill check blurb includes a reminder of what bonuses are applicable.)

7th January gives us a chance to have our first fight – we need to get past the guardian of the Sun Temple by fighting them. We get one round to attack and defeat them, if we don’t defeat them we still get in but are injured by them along the way, we can get a bonus by correctly answering a riddle. This is all nicely communicated. What’s also being communicated is that this guy is a servant of the cosmic force of law, like we’re meant to be, and we’re trying to invade some manner of divine otherworld as part of the big plan to use a massive bomb to destroy the route demons take to get to our world. I’m starting to think our King might not be on the level!

Anyway, that’s the first week’s fun settled. I can already see that doing this on a week-by-week basis might not generate enough material for each article, so rather than do another 7 days before next article in this series, I’ll instead drop another article once I have completed the tutorial section and selected my “real” PC for the adventure to come, which flipping ahead I see should be within the next couple of weeks or so.

Exorcising the Demons Haunting the West

Darker Hue Studios, helmed by Chris Spivey, made their mark with the original version of the Harlem Unbound supplement, a meticulously researched guide to Harlem in the 1920s for Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu which was so well-received that Chaosium picked it up to give it a lavish 2nd edition. Now Darker Hue have upped their ambition and put out Haunted West, their first standalone RPG, its production funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign.

The underlying concept of Haunted West is to provide a “weird West”-style RPG that makes a concerted attempt to tease out the stories of people who were decidedly present in the Old West, but who more traditional Westerns have glossed over. As well as providing a sympathetic and nuanced depiction of indigenous peoples (making a point of calling indigenous groups by their own names for themselves, rather than names coined by settlers for them), this entails making sure that women, LGBT+ folk, and people of a diverse range of racial backgrounds all get featured – for they were all riding those dusty trails back in the day, but the mythmaking of early Western writers and Hollywood depictions would variously whitewash them away, demonise them, or reduce them to caricature.

This is a laudable goal, supported by impressive research; Spivey and his crew both provide ample real-world historical detail and, for those who prefer to game in settings a little more distant from actual history, the Haunted West: Reconstruction setting. This is an alternate history where, as the name implies, the process of Reconstruction after the Civil War ends up working out better for the emancipated black population than it did in real life; whereas the old powers of white supremacy reasserted themselves through “Jim Crow” laws and the concerted removal of voting rights from black citizens in our own timeline, here various events mean that doesn’t happen – and makes the Old West a melting pot of peoples that is still an interesting setting for Western adventure, but is somewhat less driven by the logic of white supremacy and manifest destiny than the real one was.

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The Terralon Diary, Prologue: Let’s Game Through 2022!

Sundial Games’ Quest Calendars series is an innovative gamebook format in which the game unfolds over the course of a year – they’re sold not as books at all, but as desk calendars of the tear-off-a-page-each day variety. The idea is that each day on the calendar is a scene in the story, presenting the player with a little thing to resolve – with necessary information on the resolution being printed on the reverse of the previous day’s sheet. This way, each day when you tear off a new sheet you have a fun little adventure snipped to play through.

I backed the Kickstarter for the 2022 calendar, The Gates of Terralon by Thomas Bedran, and fortunately despite the shipping and materials crisis which seems to have blighted every crowdfunding project (and, indeed, every industry utilising physical goods) I’ve received my hard copy in time for the new year. (Backers and preorder customers who don’t get their calendars in time aren’t out of luck – Sundial have put out PDFs to tide people over until their physical calendars arrive.) I thought it would be fun to play through the game and log my progress here on the blog. Rather than daily (I will almost certainly end up missing some days when I am off LARPing), I’ll probably start out doing this weekly and see how it goes from there – contracting to monthly if the articles feel a bit light.

Before we get into that, let’s take a look at the goodies and the rules rundown. Though you can play with just the calendar (in physical form or PDF format), I paid a little extra to get some handy tools – darling little polyhedral dice (I already have plenty, but these are very cute and compact), dry erase markers, and the Hero Book Companion to scrawl in with the markers. The Companion starts out with a rundown of the rules (handy so you don’t need to hold onto the first few pages in the calendar, though I imagine many players will want to keep hold of old pages to remind themselves of plot points), sheets for logging your equipment and inventory, and character sheets for the various playable characters (and a blank character sheet if you want to roll your own).

Apparently, we have to play through the first few days as a specific character for a sort of tutorial before our character choice opens up, so I’ll get into the PCs listed here in detail when I get to the point of choosing, but I notice immediately that there’s variants of their character sheet provided – one for each level they advance to, which is quite handy. In terms of the rules rundown, it looks like most of the resolution mechanics will be on the daily sheets, though there’s some pointers here about ongoing issues like rest, potion use, followers, and so on. (No unified resolution mechanic that I can see – let’s see how that pans out.)

Two interesting mechanics catch my eye. The first is that combat is on a time limit – rather than roll, roll, rolling until you are defeated, you have a set number of turns to defeat an adversary in, otherwise they win and presumably you suffer some detrimental effect. The second is that there’s rules for continuing after you are reduced to 0 health – you have to roll a die to see what sort of lingering problem afflicts you. We’ll have to see if that ends up putting us in death spiral territory, but it’s good to know we’ll be able to continue even if we get knifed in the heart on January 3rd.

That’s all I’ve got to say for now – I’ll check back with you in early-to-mid January with an update on how the adventure kicks off.

The World Is Your Setting Guide 5

Time for another instalment in my occasional series about books on real-life subject matter which can be potentially handy for games set in the real world (whether in the modern day or in history). This time around, I’m going take a sort of thematic look at the world of heresies, secret societies, folklore and occultism. All of these are things which fantasy and horror fiction drawing on real-world history loves to play with – think Ars Magica, think Call of Cthulhu, think the entire World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness family – so real information on the subject matter is often useful.

One of these books offers a modern-ish treatment of a subject which has had an awful lot of rubbish talked about it, and is useful for getting an accessible pass at what our current understanding of the subject is. The rest are also somewhat more archaic, but precisely because they are a bit old are interesting for getting an insight into how people at the time the books in question were written viewed the subjects in question.

The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O’Shea

There is an amazing amount of nonsense written about the Cathars, largely thanks to the romanticisation their legend has undergone ever since the reassessment of their cause in the early 19th Century by French intellectuals of an anti-clerical bent. If you want to know the actual history of Catharism, the dualist heresy of the 12th to 14th Centuries which became so widespread in the Languedoc region of what is now southern France that it inspired a Crusade against fellow Christians, the foundation of the Inquisition (and its pioneering of modern police state tactics), and some of the greatest atrocities of medieval Europe, The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O’Shea is a great big-picture survey of the subject.

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Supplement Supplemental! (Forsaken Systems, Lost Litanies, and Sigmar’s City)

Occasionally I end up looking at supplements where I don’t have that much to say about them individually, but I do have more to say about them in aggregate; that’s when I run a Supplement Supplemental article. This time around, it’s a bit of a Warhammer special, since I’ve finally received delivery of some hard copy goodies from Cubicle 7 for Wrath & Glory and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Let’s take a look and see what Papa Nurgle’s brought us…

Forsaken System Player’s Guide (Wrath & Glory)

Though the Wrath & Glory system – the new Warhammer 40,000 RPG to replace the plethora of similar-but-different games published during the Fantasy Flight Games era – has plenty to recommend it, the original release of the core rules, managed by Ulisses North America, had its issues. As well as some major sticking points with the system, there was also the issue that the default background of the game – the Gilead System, a cluster of worlds cut off from the rest of the Imperium by the opening of the Great Rift – was only lightly touched on, despite extensive material having apparently been prepared for it.

The Cubicle 7 rerelease of the core rules already went a long way towards fleshing out the Gilead System material and providing better pointers on how it was intended to be used in play, and that process continues with the Forsaken System Player’s Guide, a supplement which almost all Wrath & Glory referees and players will find something of interest in.

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I Ain’t Afraid of No Wraiths

World of Darkness: Ghost Hunters – yet another Kickstarter project from Onyx Path – is another entry in the extensive 20th Anniversary World of Darkness line. It’s a supplement, rather than a standalone core book, and the front cover bills it as being for Wraith: the Oblivion, which is sort of true but not quite the whole story. It’s a Wraith supplement in the sense that ghost hunters are, specifically, ordinary human beings who go looking for spooks, and in the World of Darkness setting that means that if they find what they are actually looking for, they’ll have turned up a Wraith, or at least something Wraith-related; it’s also thematically something of a reimagining of The Quick and the Dead, the old “here’s the mortals that hunt your particular splat” supplement from the original Wraith line.

On the other hand, it doesn’t absolutely require Wraith. It needs one of the 20th Anniversary core rules to explain the basic system stuff, of course – but you don’t need to use the Wraith one for it, and indeed there’s a little appendix at the end giving a simplified system for statting up spooks to use in conjunction with Ghost Hunters if you don’t have Wraith to hand. This is a little reminiscent of the 1st edition New World of Darkness core rules (before that line got renamed Chronicles of Darkness and had the God-Machine Chronicle folded into its new core rulebook), since that book included some brief rules on ghosts to provide something to investigate or be antagonised by if you were running a mortals-only campaign using only that book.

It’s also tempting to compare this book to The Hunters Hunted, in either its original version or its 20th Anniversary edition update. After all, Hunters Hunted was the original “play mortals hunting the supernatural” supplement for the World of Darkness, and a critically revered one at that, and it kicked off the trend for each of the original World of Darkness games to have an associated supplement on a similar theme, The Quick and the Dead being the one they did for Wraith; this process culminated (as far as the original World of Darkness is concerned) with Hunter: the Reckoning, a game which took the “you are playing mortals hunting the supernatural” concept and botched it by making all the PCs “Imbued” – in other words, a new flavour of supernatural individual with their own special powers.

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A Gentle Learning Curve For Glorantha

Chaosium’s new RuneQuest Starter Set is very much designed along similar lines to their extremely successful one for Call of Cthulhu. Like that set, it has cover art clearly riffing on the game’s original cover art – as with early editions of the game you get a Bronze Age warrior woman fighting a monster here, but you have a wider party of adventurers with her and it’s more evident that party members are using a mixture of magic and combat prowess. Like that set, it’s intended to provide some semblance of training wheels to help owners of the set go from zero to refereeing their own games by offering a solo adventure to provide an introduction to the rules before providing a rich set of sample adventures to play through as a group. Like that set, the provided rules summary is actually in-depth and useful enough to remain useful for consultation even should you graduate to using the full-fat RuneQuest rules.

At the same time, the RuneQuest Starter Set necessarily deviates from the example set by the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set in some important ways, necessary because of the somewhat different nature of the game. For one thing, Call of Cthulhu is a horror game where player characters start out not knowing much about the true evils of the world, and which is set in the real world and real history. This means that there’s little need for the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set to offer much of anything in the way of setting material, because players and referees alike can draw on their general knowledge of the period and place and use Wikipedia or other sources to cover any particularly severe gaps.

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