Sunday, October 31, 2010

Goblin Markets: Reviewing Changeling the Lost

What Is It?
Exploration of Goblin Markets in Changeling the Lost.

A short review today, and number 30 if I count the mini-reviews for Edge of Midnight as three separate items...which I will. So October almost over, Happy Halloween.

The Front Gate
Goblin Markets is the last publication in the Changeling the Lost line. At first I was a little sad to see this game go, but its become clear that most of the new World of Darkness will be reaching the same tepid conclusion. With a switch to a digital, non-print strategy and a focus on an MMORPG based in the old World of Darkness, I think we can expect diminishing output. This is doubly bad because the last several Changeling supplements have all had some great material, and Goblin Markets points to a way the line could continue; not with full books, but with substantial and interesting explorations of different topics.

Goblin Markets, of course, deals with the classic magical markets which exist at the margins of the hedge. Hellboy II, of course had the best and most vivid example, but DC Comics' Books of Magic also has a tour of one. Harry Potter's Diagon Alley owes more than a little to that atmosphere of nervous worry over magical sales. It might be worth considering Stephen King's Needful Things as another great example.

So this pdf-only supplement sets out to provide some further discussion of the topic previously hinted at in the books. It does but up against some of the earlier depictions of the Hobs- leaning more towards them as organized and societal. The material here is presented with White Wolf's Storytelling Adventure System, a rule-lite approach to allow it to be easily ported around. The pdf itself is 49 pages long; 9 of which are fluff text, full-page illos or ToC.

The Stalls
The first chapter sets out the basics of how such markets work and most importantly for play, how they interact with changelings and the Freeholds. It actually provides some nice depth to the interplay in that the Courts have to tolerate the existence of the Goblin Markets or risk them vanishing or even acting against them. That balance has a number of story ideas in it. There's a nice discussion about the “goblins” themselves which adds new depth and gives the GM some new tools for adversaries and allies. The chapter also discusses the layout, rules and types of Goblin Markets which might exist. There are some brief but inspiring examples. I suspect GMs will only ever use one of these, but I also like the idea of battling Goblin Markets.

The second chapter talks about the kinds of things which might be found in the market-- for hedgespun to tokens to Goblin Contracts. I especially like the idea of the geegaws and tiny devices which have only a modest ability or strange effect. I'd buy a pdf of just ideas for things like these 0-dot tokens. Of course other more dangerous things can be bought and traded in the market- abstractions, slaves and even destinies. There's some discussion of how to handle bargains, trades and costs. GMs will have to take a look over this carefully. Do you want to allow players to simply spend points or should there just be a narrative to get something- or some combination of the two. Of course the kinds of bargains and items found here can spark new stories in a chronicle. The discussion here covers a lot of ground- there's little wasted space.

The last chapter presents some plot hooks, NPCs and story ideas. The storyteller characters here are generally pretty interesting and imaginative. There are a couple that didn't immediately grab, but most cooked up plots on first read. I would have liked perhaps some suggestions for hooks with those characters. Those details are useful for a GM offering more ideas about how to integrate them into the game. I appreciate the suggestions for how to role-play the NPCs, but it seems less useful. After the NPCs the book offers two quick scenario hooks (perhaps a page each) using the Storyteller Adventure System layout. They're OK, but feel a little tacked on.

A Goblin Market's an interesting site to drop into any game of the fantastic. The basic premise is fairly universal. This book offers some ideas which could be easily exported elsewhere. For GMs looking to convert Changeling as a whole to another system, there's little work which would have to be done for this.

It's kind of sad to see the last supplement in a game line. I have a fondness for something being complete, but at the same time it seems like there still exist interesting aspects which could be developed. Goblin Market's a nice showcase for how they could have moved forward. Overall it is a decent book and a solid purchase for any Changeling GM.

Changeling the Lost remains for me the most accessible and interesting of the new World of Darkness line. It offers characters trying to overcome their wounds finding their place in the world. That's certainly my take on it, but it also offers entry into a more fantastic setting- depending on how one wishes to take it. The characters could be involved in Courtly matters or could be avengers against the Gentry who stole them. I can see such campaigns feeling very different, but equally interesting.

Friday, October 29, 2010

De Profundis: Review Found in an Attic


I know it has been some time and I'm a little loathe to contact you, but now I know I have to warn you. I didn't take you perhaps as seriously as I should have the first time, but now it has returned.

De Profundis.

I remember reading about it years ago when it first came out. Translated from the Polish someone said, a game unlike any other. Then within an hour of my curiosity being piqued you sent me an email. Would I like to try playing a new game you'd found, De Profundis? At the time I took it for an amusing coincidence, but now I see that it wasn't that. The book had plans. Our abortive attempt to play it, with only a few letters exchanged between us- that was the damnable thing laying a seed inside our heads. Perhaps it could not fully bring itself forth into our world yet. Perhaps the stars were not right.

I fear that they are in alignment now. For now there comes a second edition of this game-- more extensive and more dangerous.

At this point I'm certain that you will be shaking your head. The last time I spoke with you about De Profundis you looked at me as if I was mad. You claimed you'd never played such a game, never even heard of it. It had made you forget, but I remembered to an unknown purpose. Please believe me that you have played-- perhaps in my describing it again, a recollection might stir.

De Profundis is a role-playing game, though saying that may be stretching the definition. Certainly there are those who would not recognize it as such: it lacks a gamemaster (though perhaps there might be an organizing force...), a conventional play structure or even a resolution system. Instead it is closer to the shared narrative of something like Baron Munchausen or Fiasco. You may dismiss that out of hand and perhaps if you do so you might be the better for it. But let us assume that you are intrigued and wondering what kind of a 'game' this might actually be. Maybe you've started to recall our earlier encounter with it. Or perhaps not.

It styles itself as a psychodrama, an odd term. In that it suggests that the players, the participants as the book terms them, will not necessarily explore a plot-driven story. Instead they will carry out the exploration and reflective dissection of the character they decide to take on. That exploration comes through the exchange of letters, missives, notes and perhaps even ephemera. In this it resembles the style of Stoker's Dracula, that novel built from correspondence, annotations and fictitious news clippings. For a more modern version one has to look to something like Griffin & Sabine or even House of Leaves. Of course we argued over that latter book before, whether it exists as a true book or dread or simply executes a literary magic trick. But the real precursor, the spiritual and explicit grandfather of De Profundis is the work of H.P. Lovecraft.

In that sense, it is another Call of Cthulhu game, but very different. It stakes itself on discovery, rather than investigation. As a game format, it could feed on any genre-- but somehow this is more appropriate. And I suspect De Profundis has its own ideas for why the Lovecraftian Mythos must be at the core. One can play oneself, select an old Call of Cthulhu character, or even chose someone from one of the original HPL stories. That selection merely sets the scene and the background; no one has a character sheet as such. What's important is the persona they inhabit in the play of this psychodrama.

The 'rules', such as they are, provide guidelines and suggestions for how to carry out and support the mood of such play. Some might dismiss the game as simply a fancified forum thread: an exchange of letters form the narrative. It could be that, I suspect, but the text provides keys for other paths. Methods for establishing timelessness, for marking play, for the physical nature of the game carried out in actual parchment, action versus experience...all of these things. Though it may seem like a passive game, there exists a passive and an active position in the play it discusses. You might be a subject without even being aware of it. The language of the book itself draws the reader in. As I warned you...I did warn you, didn't I?...De Profundis plays with you even as it reveals its secrets.

The first half of De Profundis lays out these things in hints and suggestions-- beginning with an extensive abstract presentation of the concepts. Two smaller sections follow on how to visualize the secret world necessary for this writing. It becomes almost a relief when the tone of the dreadful thing shifts halfway through- finally becoming more meta, like a conventional rulesbook. Beware, though, even that's a trick to lull you in with the excellent discussion and make you forget the brain worm it strives to embed in your consciousness. It provides mechanical tools which some may grasp as a reference point. It may give them a sense of familiarity...but on closer examination those tables are a straw-man, a scarecrow pointing down a dark road. Wait...

I'm sorry, I thought I heard something, but it was only the rustling of the pages. I purchased this game on pdf, but somehow everywhere I look, out of the corner of my eye I see it. It seems to have bled into my thinking about other games. I must put my copy of The Armitage Files down in the basement where it will be secure.

Where was I? Yes-- De Profundis wants to be larger, wants to be used. The Lovecraft connections reveals its true heritage, but it could easily infect other genres: fantasy, the mythic, historical...all could fall victim. I suggests that such a play could be used to complement an on-going tabletop game- to provide another perspective. There-- you see how it tries to extend its tendrils? The vivid examples of play at the end of the book stay with me even now-- creating more ideas for bringing De Profundis into the world. I even suggests how one might use this in an electronic medium without losing the atmosphere...reaching a broader audience.

Which is what it wants...I see that now.

The most important thing is that we must not allow reviews of this game to be posted on the internet-- good, bad or indifferent, they can only spark some dark thoughts at the back of readers' minds. They'll be clicking through some easy shopping site and it will pop up in a sidebar, the Adsense of Azathoth as it were. They'll buy it, download it and then they'll read it. The game itself compels me to give it a positive review-- to speak of its potency and how it can get into the consciousness. I must resist, I must not review it...

(4 Out of Five Stars)
Thumbs Up!
Buy it now on RPG Now.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

FVLMINATA: Armed with Lightning: A "Building Rome" Review

What Is It?
Alternate-history Rome setting based on the early discovery of gunpowder.

This is the last of these “Building Rome” reviews I have planned for October. Eventually I hope to do a few more. I've hit a lot of the big games available, but I've missed a few as well. I didn't get to any of the additional free Cthulhu Invictus material available on the Chaosium website; plus there's the promise of an upcoming supplement for that. I didn't cover adventures, though there are a number of them available. Probably the biggest thing I missed was White Wolf's Requiem for Rome line. When it came out I heard it was pretty deeply Vampire based rather than a useful Rome sourcebook, so I skipped it. I think it is OOP now, but eventually I may hunt down a pdf-- or perhaps they'll have their POD established by that point. In looking through Chad Bowser's Geeklist “Greek and Roman RPGs” I spotted a few other major English-language books: Pax Gladius and the classic TSR The Glory of Rome. It looks like there are a couple of foreign language games, but I'm a little surprised that the only Asterix games seem to be solo adventure play ones.

From the Ashes
Fulminata presents a simple change, with a survivor of Pompeii's destruction turning his obsession into the discovery of gunpowder. Hence the name Fulminata, from the phrase Terra Fulminata or 'earth armed with lightning'. As the author notes, while the Romans did not innovate greatly, they were experts at applying existing discoveries. The game sets its date at 248 AD, exactly 1000 years after the founding of Rome. The game uses the AUC dating scheme, making this year 1000 in the game. That's a little easier to track, but I still prefer using the conventional dates. Fulminata contains both the setting material and a game system. It clocks in at 236 pages, cleanly laid out with an open text design that invites browsing. The illustrations are simple and effective- with an excellent and evocative cover. With many of these supplements being simply Dover clip art, it is nice to see fresh and consistent artwork. I should note that I'm reviewing the second edition of the game. If you hunt for this game online note it may be listed under Fulminata and/or FVLMINATA.

The Grinding Gear
I don't want to talk too much about the system except where it impacts on a reader who is looking to borrow elements. In brief it is a low-detail, high-trust role-playing game, using d8's, which are called Talli. These dice have two I's, two III's, two IV's and two VI's. The rules suggest putting stickers on standard d8's. The simple resolution system encourages less rolling-- most task can be completed if the character has sufficient skill. Rolls are done by rolling Skill + Attribute + 4 Talli against a target number. The mechanics are simple enough they could be extracted and replaced. There's some interesting flavor there however with details like the special dice and skills being organized around the appropriate patron god. About 55 pages of the book are given over the character creation, task resolution and combat which seems pretty modest and tight.

Fulminata's one of the best examples I've seen of how to write a setting material. It's smartly written with an understanding that readers may find this kind of alt history overwhelming. The authors lay out the essential counterfactual scenario right away. They follow that with an explanation of their narrative approach, favoring play and believability over accuracy and minutiae. As an example, in the introduction Fulminata goes over the Roman Virtues, something I've seen elsewhere. But here it contrasts those with modern values and then walks through each virtue and how it might apply to situations. That's a nice step to provide at the outset-- giving players and GMs a descriptive rather than prescriptive framework for play.

The background material is uniformly strong-- with an emphasis on accessibility and playability. That can be seen most clearly in the treatment of women. Though the restricted status of women in Roman society is touched upon, the character (called persona) examples include several females in non-traditional occupations. Alternate history aside, there's a lot of excellent background material here. Not as in depth as some other resources, but useful and solid. The overviews provide enough for a GM to frame scenes and ideas. Throughout the authors tie in even the mechanical systems to the themes of the setting. We get chapters devoted to history, society, the military, games, and so on. Taken alone the background material would serve someone assembling a Roman campaign well.

This being an alternate history sourcebook, there's a focus on what's different. In this Fulminata demonstrates a slight contradiction. The big change advertised is the existence of gunpowder, called Fulminata. My expectation going in was that this might lead to a more Steam, Diesel or Powderpunk game with lots of weird technology based off of that. Perhaps it would be like a DiVinci-esque set or weapons or maybe reclaiming lost Greek technology of batteries or a fire that burns eternally for some strange engine. Nope. The Romans have gunpowder, they've managed to use it for weapons and that's allowed them to expand and sustain their influence. Only three pages are explicitly dedicated to the concept- but it appears throughout the history, carefully thought out, considered and subtle. While it feels a little odd in that the concept seems to be the selling point (and the name of the game), the authors seem to be going for a slightly shifted history.

Or not. There's another big change in this setting that gets a less attention, with only passing mention on the back cover and in the introduction. Fulminata also includes a pretty substantial and detailed system for magic. Or should I say magics as it offers several different flavors ranging from Magi to Mithraic Priests to Etruscan Diviners to other Magicians and Witches. That takes up 35 pages of the book. The details and interesting and unusual. For GMs hoping to build an evocative Roman magic system it offers an excellent starting template. It does not, however, provide as much discussion of the implications of magic's existence on Roman history-- GMs will have to do some improvisation on that.

The book closes with an adventure and a number of useful appendices (names and so on). There's a glossary and a really full index. My reservation here would be that I'd like to have more material sketching out some campaign frames. What kinds of campaigns would make use of the settings particular details? At the very least a set of adventure seeds would have been nice.

I enjoyed reading Fulminata. It has many good ideas backed by solid writing. As a general Roman resource it has a lot to offer. As a model for how one might make tweets to history or add in fantastic elements, it does a good job. It doesn't have the mad jumble feeling that Roma Imperious does. Instead it takes a more tightly controlled approach that still leaves plenty of room for cool stuff.

Probably the biggest disappointment about this game is that it appears to be out of print. The website's still up, but the last updates mention the year 2008. It doesn’t look like the games available through pdf distribution either, at least so far as I can tell. Apparently a supplement called Insulae Britannicae: The British Isles had been in the works. There's some sample art from that and the last Live Journal entries mention editing being done on it. Then nothing else. If you spot a copy, I recommend picking it up. I hope that this will be reprinted someday.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Swords at Dawn: Reviewing Changeling the Lost

What Is It?
Diverse collection of Changeling the Lost material loosely linked by the idea of change.

Final Countdown
The last of the Changeling the Lost sourcebooks covers transitional times-- the idea of changes. Again, as with Dancers in the Dusk, that presents a fairly thin excuse to put these ideas together. It suggests perhaps a more hopeful approach than Dancers, yet opens with a large section on war and duels. Again White Wolf puts out an impressive book. I'll admit I was a little skeptical when various companies started to put everything out as hardcovers but that's grown on me. First, most of the books are more substantial, with the Changeling line coming in at 160 pages apiece. That's probably as small as I want in a hardcover; 128 pages would be the absolute bottom. These books also hold up to the wear and tear of use- the stock of the covers might get scratched, but the pages don't bend and warp which is something I'm willing to pay for in weight and price. In the case of this hardcover, White Wolf again does an excellent job with layout and solid text design. The illustrations may not be as great as some of the books in the line, but they're still excellent.

Duels at Dawn
The first chapter covers the question of warfare, mostly within a Freehold. That's a topic that needs covering, given how the books present the Courts: dominating, conniving, adversarial. Reading through makes me wonder how any Freehold could survive- but perhaps that's just the dim lighting of the World of Darkness making it more difficult for me to see. Wars between Courts are not the only ones dealt with, there's also battles between Freeholds, with forces of slavers, against loyalists, between Entitlements (called "Endowments" here?), and of course with the very forces of Arcadia and the Others spilling forth into the real world.

There's the suggestion of these stories as the climax or high points for a Changeling Chronicle, with some discussion of how those can be managed. There's also a set of scenario seeds...

Wait. I thought this was a player's book. That's what was suggested in the previous volume, Dancers, which claimed to be GM-oriented and the companion volume would be for players. Game companies: please stop doing this. Pick a direction for the material and stick with it- players book or GMs book. At least separate it or post a spoiler note.

Swords at Dawn provides a great non-mechanical assessments of the different Courts and Seemings approach war. I'm not sure entirely which audience this targets-- players planning a war? players needing advice? GMs considering this for a chronicle? The material provides some novel discussions despite this. There's some consideration of the Hedge's role in warfare, plus a number of merits and flaws for characters. Probably the more interesting part of the section comes from a lengthy discussion of the rules and etiquette of dueling. These had been hinted at in earlier books but here we finally get some solid material- though it does smack a little of a musketeer or samurai game. The section wraps up with two new war-related contracts, some Goblin contracts and some martial tokens and pledges. (43 pages)

The Loom of Fate
This section of Swords at Dawn has some of the most interesting ideas, undercut by an over-reliance on mechanics. I've mentioned before in my Changeling reviews that often the ideas presented by the narratives and stories aren't fully supported by the rules. In some case I have a hard time picturing how some of the things could even work given the limits. The new World of Darkness rules, and by extension Changeling, has a lot of very specific system details and explanation for just about everything.

That makes this section suggesting shared narrative power between the players and the GM so strange. The idea's strong- Changelings themselves are tied to Wyrd or Fate (again a terminology problem) and have been subject to the stories of the Keepers. Therefore back in this world they can see and shape those tangles of destiny, can help redirect the stories of others and of themselves. The book provides extensive discussion of patterns, elements, ideas. It echoes the Fate chapter of Dancers in the Dusk and deepens that. But all of that is subject to rolls, to modifier tables, to special merits, addiction drawbacks and the like. The game sets off in a great direction, but ultimately stumbles. Still, with work, these systems could be used. Most importantly the material here will provide many sessions of inspiration for the GM. (33 pages)

Things of Legend
Magic items and artifacts for a Changeling the Lost campaign. Again...why is this stuff in a player's book? I mean here's the thing: the chapter opens with some really powerful and story-changing items (think Eye of Vecna or The Machine of Lum the Mad). If these items were to appear in a game they would be foreshadowed, there would be dark rumors swirling, players would see the results of their power long before they ever caught sight of them, and they would have to delve into lore to uncover their secrets.

Or they could just read this book.

So a neat GM resource, but a spoiler for the players. The rest of the chapter returns to the ideas and issues of dreams, further expanding on that. Its clear that for some chronicles the dreamscape became an important factor-- given the attention paid to it later. There are some interesting dream tokens, merits, Goblin dream contracts and more conventional magic items given here. If dreams form a significant portion of your campaign, then this will be an excellent resource (21 pages)

The Coming Dawn
There's a lot to like in this chapter-- especially the opening ten pages discussing change within chronicles, both as an abstract and a specific concept. The authors suggest various campaign approaches and ideas, pairing those with a more positive take on the ideas. Where Dancers in the Dusk focused on bringing greater darkness to a chronicle, Swords at Dawn takes the opposite tact, though less explicitly. It isn't a book of happy endings, but instead suggestions for progress, forward movement and triumphs-- small and large.

The chapter also includes the Dawn Court, a Court dedicated to sacrifices for the whole and driven by the idea that the darkness can be pushed back. They aren't the shining warriors of the Summer Court, but rather a group about spirit and hope. The Contracts of Potential provided for them reflect some of those ideas, especially in the building of relationships and ties. The book ends with four new entitlements not directly tied to that, but reflecting some of those ideas. (34 pages)

Most of the material and the ideas here fit pretty solidly into the Changeling universe, with a couple of exceptions. Reworked and developed, the ideas about talecrafting as a kind of magic could be implemented into a number of strange games. GMs may also find some great stories to be told out of the artifacts presented in the book. They could take a lead role in other games. For GMs wanting to convert Changeling over to another system, there's a good number of contract sets requiring attention. The changeling-accessible tokens will also require some tuning. How talecrafting as a system gets implemented will depend on the tone of the chronicle and the system used-- I suspect it will work best with something pretty abstract and narrative driven.

This is an excellent GM's volume. The ideas here can easily be applied to an ongoing chronicle. It serves as an excellent and necessary antidote to some of the darkness which can overwhelm a Changeling campaign. That's not to say such a game can't be dark, but then the moments of hope and progress this book discusses need to be put into play.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Roma Imperious: A "Building Rome" Review

What Is It?
Alternate Imperial Rome rpg with magic.

In the Beginning
As I said when I began this series of reviews, I wanted to assess existing Rome rpg material for what they might offer a gamemaster wanting to run a “Rome” campaign. By that I meant not necessarily a historically accurate game, but one which took on that atmosphere. For my part, I expect when I finally run an Ancient Rome game it will include a great deal of the fantastic. But I want to be able to provide a consistent and interesting backdrop for the players.

With that in mind I came to Roma Imperious, one of the two significant “Alternate Romes” I planned to review. I don't include Cthulhu Invictus in this category as it doesn't posit a major historical change. Roma Imperious, on the other hand, takes place in a world with present magic and fantastic creatures. The Roman Empire has remained and has some magic operating within it. I had some high hopes for this supplement-- to see how they integrated fantasy and wizardry into the lives and history of the Roman world. In the end I was pretty disappointed.

Iridium Verison
I should mention that I'm reviewing the version using HinterWelt's Iridium system. There's also a True20 version which, as I understand, includes some new setting material. I'm not going to deal with the system mechanics for Iridium. The last 40% or so of this 338 page (in pdf) book presents Iridium as adapted to this setting; it seems pretty basic. You have classes, levels, attributes, a focus on skills, and a D&D-like spell list. But I want to concentrate on what a GM might be able to borrow or lift from this- how useful the approach to the history and setting is.

In the Details
The premise is fairly simple- Constantine sets up a group to research magic as utilized by the Druids. That bureau makes discoveries and Rome now has access to magic. The current game year is 708 A.D

It says something about the organization that it took me several minutes to actually figure out what the setting date is for this game. The historic overview ends, but doesn't suggest what's going on now. There's the odd choice to use Roman dating from the founding of Rome, in 753 BC-- so the actual game year is 1461 A.U.C. I understand going for a kind of authenticity, but I think you first owe your readers to make things clear. That's a small detail, but I think one that's reflective of the larger approach of this book. Throughout we get a lot of information, but there's little done to make it accessible to the reader. If you're throwing many new concepts around you need to provide signposts. Roma Imperious moves from section to section here without a clear sense of what's being laid out. It is many pages in before we really get a sense of what the game world might actually look like in play. That needs to come up front to sell potential players, before you info-dump all of the cool history you've built. I used to write this kind of thing and give it out to the players- elaborate historical documents that didn't have connection or purpose, just rich tasty history. And that did little or nothing to help them play at the table.

Neat Stuff Sewn Loosely
A couple of general setting things bother me- mostly the choice to set the game so late in Roman history. I understand that Constantine's an interesting figure, but having him be the spark which starts this raises some questions. In some modern fantasy the author has to resolve about why everyone doesn't know about magic. It just feels odd to have that magic appear and grow so late-- the book does tie that into the monster section with all of the magical creatures having been created or summoned by mages. That's a kind of retcon of the mythology that feels a little off to me. There are some interesting ideas but they get lost. A bigger question comes in the sense of worship. Some of the sections suggest that at least some cults have power-- so why only in the modern (to the game) era do those appear. I found myself having to go back to check or cross-check details and going "huh?" many times.

The lateness of the setting does have a couple of effects-- the game can move forward the technological level, allowing for other advances. It also allows for the creation of adversarial block empires like the Jade Kingdom (Chinese based on another whole system of magic) and Skandia as a kind of Viking/Norse analogue. It feels very patchwork-- like someone tossing together all of the cool ideas of the ancient world-- a Gamma World version of history. The actual background for the setting is only about 85 pages of the 338 page book, we then get classes for about 40 pages, and 56 pages of monsters (with stats and mechanics eating up about half of that). Then comes the Iridium rules.

After all of that, the book only provides four pages of suggestions for campaign play, plots and gamemastering. The irritating thing is that early on there's the suggestion that this book will serve as a resource for people wanting to build an alternate branching system at various times in Roman history. The logic of the setting doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Reading through I don't get the sense of magic in the setting, more the feeling that a classic D&D sense of wizards and ended up tacked on to an interesting but undeveloped riff on Roman ideas. The game wants to have all of the cool: “you can play a Praetorian Magus or an Oriental Monk or...” but doesn't really sell the setting beyond that. It feels threadbare.

I wouldn't be hard to port another system into this setting. I think I'd want something to retool the magic system. Certainly that they were able to move it over to True20 suggests that's possible. But the question would be why you would want to do that? I think the systems less of a concern then the setting as established.

I think the idea of a Roman campaign with magic as a factor is a great one. But just as some of the straight historical Rome rpg books take on too much history, Roma Imperious takes on too much chrome. There might be a few ideas to borrow-- such as how the Empire makes use of the magical technology, but those details are few and far between. Purely for a stand-point of someone looking for resources and references to help in crafting their own game, I think this is a weak choice. It isn't to be avoided-- there's some fun ideas here- but there are other first-buy choices out there.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Dancers in the Dusk: Reviewing Changeling the Lost

What Is It?
A GM hodge-podge loosely organized around the idea of darkening a Changeling the Lost campaign.

For a Few Books More...
Arguably one of the strengths of Changeling the Lost as a line is that as a limited run series, the support books have a pretty narrow focus-- less story fluff or unimportant tangential issues. The series, as I understand it, was originally planned for one core book plus five support books. Besides the four I've already covered (Winter Masques, Rites of Spring, Lords of Summer, and Autumn Nightmares), the fifth Equinox Road covered high level Changeling campaigns and Arcadia itself. I have to admit I picked that book up only briefly and put it back o the shelf as it didn't have anything appealing to me in my campaign design. Changeling proved popular and so they released a volume for their Night Horrors series, Grim Fears. I heard pretty bad word of mouth and so I skipped that one. I already had an antagonist book and that seemed redundant. After those, White Wolf decided the sales warranted additional material so they released three more books, Dancers in the Dusk, Swords at Dawn and Goblin Markets (pdf only). Given the new strategy for White Wolf I suspect these will be the last things we see. That's fine though as it leaves GMs and players with a nice, closed set of materials all of which are pretty useful.

The opening of Dancers in the Dusk suggests it is about bringing more darkness to your Changeling chronicle. That's a pretty loose thematic to wrap your material in. Some sections definitely fit under that, while others stretch that. It isn't, however, a deal-breaker. Actually I appreciate the variety-show approach to this material. It avoids the problems of some other nWoD line supplements where a fairly narrow topic or theme means a chunk of filler just to get to a reasonable page count. There's always interesting material throughout Dancers in the Dusk's 160 pages.

Something in the Air Tonight
I'll stop off for a sidebar moment here, not entirely addressed to the substance of this book. Have you ever bought a book new, brought it home and only after a little while realized it had an odor to it? Well, my copy of this book has it. It's taken me a while to figure out what it reminds me of-- mimeographs or developer fluid from old xerox machines-- the kind with thermal paper. Now I'm not someone who usually notices these things-- I'm not not hyper-allergic or sensitive. As a former smoker one has to suspect my deadened sense of smell. But I can definitively smell this heavily chemical scent-- a good year after buying the book. I suspect the printing process; this book was printed in China while the others in the line were printed in Canada. That's a small problem and a quick search online don't reveal other mentions of it. On the other hand, I don't look at this book for more than half an hour at a setting for fear of having my brain melt out from the leaching chemicals.

Dusk Dreams
Each of the four chapters of Dancers in the Dusk has about the same page count, ranging from 30-40 pages. The first chapter returns to the idea of a Dreams campaign, presented a little in the core book and expanded on in Rites of Spring. It has a host of interesting ideas, thrown rapidly at the reader one after the other. The system for dream realms, broken down by themes and planetary archetypes, is novel and provides a structure a GM could hang a campaign on. The authors tie a number of great story ideas to that framework. However those descriptive ideas and narrative only take up half the chapter, with the other half given over to various kinds of dream-world creatures and things. These get statted up and described. While some of the beings presented spark ideas, others seem more high mythic than I imagine for a Changeling chronicle. Still I like the idea that some Changelings in a community might be messing around with these kinds of powers. Some GMs may find this a richer resource than I do, especially those who focus on the dreamscape as an important locale.

Tangled Fates
The second chapter brings in a number of loosely related ideas, beginning with Fate as a force in the campaign. This would be Fate in the sense of tragic destiny and fighting against prophecy rather than predestination. The material is mostly narrative, with a few ideas about how mechanics might be used to support this approach. However even the book suggests that trying to put numbers and stats to these kinds of nebulous concepts might not be as useful. That doesn't keep them from then offering a series of creatures and monsters based on those ideas. Again the entities seem more suited to a high mythic game than the one Changeling began as-- not entirely a bad set of options, but a little far off the beaten path.

Perhaps the most useful material here borrows a little bit from Scion. I like the concept that people can be fatebound together and that perhaps by interacting with people, Changelings run the risk of building those connections. It echoes a kind of Celtic sense of Fate and Wyrd as tied together. (That points to the problem you get when you assign cool words to game ideas and then realize they have actual meanings- so Wyrd as Magic from the core book now has to be bundled with Fate). In Scion the fate-binding mechanic serves as an excellent device-- and I'm surprised we don't get a wholesale lift of that. On the other hand, changelings don't really need another excuse to keep themselves apart from humanity.

We also get rules for curses and curse pledges The chapter also presents two new contract sets, one a set of Goblin contracts revolving around Fate which are pretty awful and risky, though in some cases very narrowly useful. Very narrowly. The other set, more likely in the hands of an NPC or perhaps a Wizened Psychologist, deals with lucidity and restoring sanity (mostly). Those contracts automatically test the Clarity of the changeling when used, making them dangerous. The chapter also touches a little on the question of how changelings can detect the use of Contracts, an issue which comes up pretty often in the game.

Shadows Cast by Thorns
In this chapter, we return again to the Hedge, but this time with a sense of geography. The first half offers various locations, sites and stories within the Hedge. I really love this stuff, from The Fire Station to the Boggart Holes to Owlsback. We also get ideas for various tribes and peoples of the Hedge setting off a line of new thinking that helped inform my campaign. I would love to see another pdf supplement which simply presented more of these kinds of ideas. The only drawback to this material is that travel into the Hedge is a dangerous and rare thing, so a GM will have to pick and choose the most interesting of these bits.

The second half of the chapter's not nearly so interesting, devolving into another bestiary of hedge creatures with their behavior and stats. A few of these did spark ideas, but for the most part they felt fairly 'meh'. In some cases the monsters have tricks or traps which no PC would ever fall for. It would be good to perhaps have some suggestion of how you might actually apply those things in play. IMHO any time you present a monster, you ought to give at least one or two story or plot seeds for its use.

The Deepening Dusk
The final chapter explicitly deals with the theme suggested by the title. It provides the GM with discussion of options for darkening their chronicle. It nicely considers how you can do that narratively and through certain changes to the mechanics. The concept that quests and actions undertaken by the players could have ramifications on the system mechanics themselves is a great one. The book does a good job of talking about possible changes and what those ramifications might be. It doesn't just offer darkness for darkness's sake, but talks about story and meta-reasons for such changes in the campaign. Finally to balance this the chapter offers a new court, The Dusk Court, which rails embraces fate and yet battles against the rising dark. I like the idea of a court which arises in times of uncertainty and despair. We get a new contract set for that court, a number of tokens and three new entitlements.

Dancers in the Dusk offers some material which GMs might want to borrow for other campaigns. The structure for the dream world and the concept of fate ties could be used in another modern occult game. Some of the thematic discussion might also be useful. However the book as a whole is pretty deep in the Changeling setting. GMs porting Changeling to another system will have to convert the new contract sets from this one over-- which may be odd depending on how Wyrd and Clarity have been managed in the new system.

This is a book for GMs and it does have some really interesting ideas in it. However what you will get out of it depends on what your campaign vision is. I have to admit that while I liked it as I read it, I've found myself using very little of the material here in my campaign. The Hedge locations and Hob Clan concepts would probably be it. I'd suggest Dancers in the Dusk for the completest, but for GMs I'd make this one of the last purchases, the other books other more generally useful material.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Rites of Spring: Reviewing Changeling the Lost

What Is It?
Catch-all sourcebook of character stuff for Changeling the Lost.

Le Sacre du Printemps
Rites of Spring is one of the must-have books for the Changeling Game. In another era, this would have been called the Players Companion to Changeling. It looks like a Players' book, but throughout it throws in concepts that would have been better executed in a GM-targeted book. That being said there's quite a bit here to like. If I had to suggest one book beyond the core book to purchase, it would be this one for all around utility. That usefulness does come at a cost-- the organization is more than a little slap-dash. It brims with ideas but finding them or figuring out the how and why of the sequence may be a little difficult.

The book is 160 pages, of which 10 or so is given over to story fluff and another 7-8 to full page images. It follows the generally high standard for the other Changeling books, but the lack of organization isn't helped by the page design in several places. The illustrations are strong in places, but overall this is a weaker selection than in the other books. On the plus side there's little in the way of grey-scale backgrounds to make the pages harder to read.

The Parts
After a brief introduction and overview, the book opens with its shortest section, “Rhyme and Unreason” (15 pages). This is the least mechanical of the sections-- it presents some theories oddly enough on what the Keepers are. I think the writers are trying to present the kind of folklore which might exist aong the Changelings about them. The book then tries to figure out what other supernaturals look like to the Changelings-- do they assume Werewolves are just a form of Beast? This is a classic section in any of these lines and Rites of Spring does a decent job of trying to create a context. Of course there's the classic “What does a Changeling taste like to a vampire” section, with rules. The rest of the chapter provides some discussion on Wyrd and Changeling magic along with some alternate rules for handling it. Where particular changes might dramatically affect the tone or direction of a campaign, the rules try to note that. Overall the material is interesting, especially some ideas on the seasons and True names, but it isn't especially necessary. Its also hard to see exactly why these discussions are in their own section rather than with like material later.

The second section, “Bound in Dreams” covers Dreams and Pledges (25 pages). The link seems to be that they're two large systems from the core book that require additional revision and explanation. The pledge system in the main rules offers a distinct magic, built on classic forms. However as originally presented it has some built-in assumptions. All pledges cost glamour to activate from both parties, all pledges have a punishment sanction, and all pledges offer a benefit while under their auspice. The goal seems to have the players take on a risk (of failure, punishment) in exchange for benefits and bonuses. The rules presented here offer a number of options for handling those pledges in different ways. Because of the number of different and contradictory options offered, a GM will have to work through these ideas carefully. However the material does a great job of opening up the original rules. The Dream section tries to do the same with less spectacular results. The idea of a dream-based campaign presented doesn't give enough to make it viable. The key problem from the original rules-- dreams being an important part of Changeling life, but dream-entry, requiring the Changeling to actually see the target, remains the same. Still there's some nice GM-side ideas here, which seems a little out of place in a book generally player-oriented.

The third and longest section “The Wyrd” is also the most scattered (63 pages). However is provides a good deal of useful information for players and GMs. It expands the discussion of Glamour and Clarity from the main rules, providing better examples. In the case of Clarity it provides a much better break down of what those levels mean and how they might affect play. It takes the time to walk through how the illusion of the Mask functions in the world. That's a vital topic and one certain to come up in play. Besides several general topics, the book finally gets to some solid mechanics for characters. Several pages of new merits and a few flaws provide some significant additions to the rules. Rites of Spring also provides five new Contract sets as well as a number of new Goblin Contracts. Players will find this part of the book most useful.

The final section “From the Thorns” considers all matters relating to the Hedge (32 pages). It deals less with the geography and locations of the hedge and more with how players might interact with it. Rites covers hedge sculpting and duels, but pretty lightly. More attention gets paid to Goblin Fruits and their harvesting. More rules for the creation and modification of a Motley's Hollow provide a good start, but I would have liked to have seen more. The section spends most of its pages on magic items: both the Hedge-Spun and Tokens. However the problem still exists from the main book of only modest direction about balancing these items. Some seem pretty powerful for the cost, while others seem fairly wimpy. GMs will have to do a double check on those ratings.

If you're looking for Changeling ideas and mechanics to port over to another campaign, I don't think this book would be particularly useful. Most of the ideas presented here expand those in the main book. The sole exception to that might be the rethinking of the material on pledges. For GMs looking to port Changeling to another system, this book is worth a read- to see variants on the core systems and new applications of those rules. Obviously some of the chrome mechanics of the setting will need adaptation-- like the various contracts. GMs will have to decide if they wish to do a literal or more abstract port of those issues. But a GM will also have to make some key decisions about how to handle some of the other sub-systems in the game. Rites discusses many of those in greater detail: Pledges, Dreamshaping, Hedges, Clarity and so on.

Just a quick note on pledges-- as I think they're one of the most interesting facets of the game, but also the most difficult to implement. In classic stories, the characters take on pledges and only later realize that they've misread or overlooked something in the terms. Players know that and will be extra-careful in dealing with contracts. The GM has to decide how they want to handle that: is that reasonable? Is that the tone of caution they want? If not, then the question of having mechanics for that rears its head. Should there be a roll for constructing a pledge? For analyzing one? If a player doesn't detect anything wrong should they be obliged to take it on? I think that's a tough set of decisions for a GM.

This is a solid entry, with a heavier focus on mechanics. I'd recommend this to both Changeling players and GMs. It isn't essential, but for players looking to buy one book beyond the core, I'd say pick up this one (and maybe Winter Masques as a second choice).

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Rome: The Life & Death of the Republic: A "Building Rome" Review

What is it?
A Roman sourcebook covering the period from the founding to the end of the Republic.

To begin: if you're thinking about running a campaign set in ancient Rome, you should buy this book.

Rome: The Life and Death of the Republic is a 220-page sourcebook for Basic Role-Playing. This comes from Alephetar Games who also did Nameless Streets for HeroQuest which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. The layout's clean and the book mostly uses classic illustrations rather than too much original art. Based on these books, I'm going to put some of their other books Stupor Mundi, Merrie England, and Dragon Lines on my wishlist.

Pick Your Rome
It's interesting to consider how Rome has appeared in various media-- there's definitely a “sexier” part of that history. Most cinematic adaptations cover the period just at end of the Republic era or after- from Julius Caesar on. Spartacus would be an exception. Certainly on television that's the case as well: I, Claudius; Rome; AD, and so on. Historical fiction tends to follow suit-- all of the Roman historical mysteries take place after the Republic has become a memory: Roberts, Rowe, Saylor, Wishaert, Downie. So its worthwhile risk for someone do produce a sourcebook which covers not that period, but an earlier one.

Like Cthulhu Invictus, Life and Death of the Republic, concerns itself with a portion of Rome's history. However, where Cthulhu Invictus cut a reasonably-sized slice for itself, Life and Death simply splits the meal in half. It still takes on a huge swath of history, something it admits to right up front. But it also provides a comprehensive overview. We get from the founding of Rome as a monarchy up through the Civil War and the collapse of the Republic. This Rome isn't a timeless abstract-- the book discusses the evolution and changes of cultural details. Eternal Rome and GURPS Imperial Rome took on all of Roman history and, with the exception of the historical timeline, treated everything as static across that entire time period, Life and Death provides some details and options about how things looked in different phases of Rome's development. It breaks those explicitly down into The Monarchy, Early Republic, Middle Republic and Late Republic. It's worth noting that last period does get more attention (in terms of quotations and citation) but that makes sense.

Life and Death makes another unusual decision in focusing attention on what we classically think of as “Rome.” That is we stay in the heartland. Little attention is given to other countries within the Empire. Rome itself stands as a model for other cities in the Empire. That's a striking approach for material like this. On the one hand it means that the authors have room to deal with the core topics of their focus: Roman life, society and history. On the other hand, it does mean that GMs desiring a campaign that moves outside the confines of the Italian Peninsula will have to do some work. Some of the other Roman rpg resources might be useful, but GMs will be forgiven for feeling a little spoiled after having been given the depth of material here.

The Divisions

The book breaks down into fourteen chapters of varying length. While there are some sidebars and notes, we don't really get to any extensive mechanics and campaigns material until about page 120. In that first set of chapters we get coverage of Roman Society (20p.), Roman Culture (20p.), the city of Rome (25p.), The Games (12p.), The Army (18p.), and Philosophy and Religion (15p). Throughout the author provides extensive and interesting quotations from primary sources. Most chapters provide some ideas for player and adventures seeds in boxed text. All of these sections are well written and interesting. The section of the games is especially interesting-- showing how they grew out of other rituals and evolved from funerary rites. The discussion of other kinds of games and how those might be used in play is good. I also liked seeing the details on the changes in weapons, armor and service over time in the section on the army. Author Pete Nash also stops to discuss philosophies of the empire, an important factor. I could go on-- suffice as to say that the material is rich and covers a great deal of ground.

I should stop off an mention the tone and approach of this material; some may find it a little off-putting. Life and Death aims at achieving a kind of accuracy-- providing material so GMs can run a more realistic game. The focus isn't on verisimilitude, but simulation. The material talks about the kinds of attitudes, approaches, and mores which we in the modern world might find objectionable (especially on the issues of familial authority, women and slaves). It suggests that players will have to adjust to that. I think that's easier said than done. The book takes an authoritative approach-- providing facts and details, but with less on the topic of how that might get shown in play. Mind you the writing is strong enough to support that rigid approach. And there are some scenario suggestions for a few entry points.

Basic Role-Playing is a fairly simple system, so that material doesn't get in the way too much. Even once we get to the chapter on characters-- there's still more descriptive text than BRP rules. The section which follows on Roman Magic takes an interesting and open approach-- showing how the Romans spoke about magic and then how those ideas could be used in one of several approaches. GMs can pick from games which have no magic, psychological magic, or true magic. The guidelines given will take some work to put into practice, but the author gives the GM some excellent tools. Fifteen pages on creatures and monsters do provide stats but also some notes on use.

The material on campaigns will be generally useful to anyone thinking about a Roman campaign. It suggests several frames and talks about the kinds of details necessary to them. There's some discussion of alternate campaigns but these are more tidbit than meal. The lists of ten scenario ideas for different topics (Charioteering, Animals, Disasters) is excellent and I would have loved a few more pages of those. We also get some NPCs statted out and notable persons described. Interestingly the book waits until one of the last chapter to actually break out the historical timeline and walk through the 700 years. That's a good choice and one that reinforces earlier material and keeps it from being overwhelming. That's done as a table with events described in four areas (War, Politics & Law, Religion, the City). The book wraps up with a series of useful appendices as well as excellent maps.

This is a book for history buffs-- those who like a serious approach. But it is also incredibly rich for anyone wanting to carry off the spirit of Rome in a campaign. It doesn't do some things like a sense of the Empire or an approach to the supernatural which other books (like Cthulhu Invictus) do. But it is the most comprehensive, well-done and rich historical sourcebooks I've ever read. I can only how we might see more from this publisher, perhaps covering Rome under the Emperors or a book providing a look at the other parts of the Empire in this period.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Reviews: Supplements for the Edge of Midnight RPG

Preliminary Note
With this I hit my 20th review of the 30 I have planned for October. Today's review is a little longer as I cover several products rather than one. I'm only going to count it as two reviews, so I can take Saturday off from posting!

Since I reviewed The Edge of Midnight rpg yesterday, I thought it might be worth doing a run-down set of mini-reviews for the three sourcebooks published for this setting. It strikes me as one of those criminally overlook game settings well deserving of a second look. So below you'll fin d a description of each of the books, their value to someone thinking about running EoM, and if the material here might be useful for GMs running other games.

Readers might be forgiven for thinking this book only deals with the Gaunts, since underworld's a term thrown around in connection with them in the core book. However this volume (and Warlocks and Detectives) splits its attention evenly between two groups. First, is surveys the Underworld of the Edge of Midnight setting: con-men, thieves, gangsters, and felons. Second, it hits the Gaunts, humans who have been transformed by a supernatural virus. That change gifted them with abilities while simultaneously making them hideous and pushing them to the margins of society. Both sections provide GM information as well as suggestions for how players could build those characters. The book mentions early that players might want to check with their GM about what they should read or not read- an ultimately unsatisfying approach to dealing with the player-information problem.

The Underworld
The material on crime takes up the first two-thirds of this 176-page book. As with the main book, the text design is tight and dense. That makes just a casual perusal a more daunting task. On the other hand, the book focuses much more heavily on background information, setting details and ideas than it does on mechanics or system information. Each of the four chapters on criminals talks about how those groups appear in the world, detailed methods of operation, and how PCs might come across them. I expected that the sections might provide some new character options-- to make up for the relatively lack of "cool" offered to non-Warlock and non-Gaunt characters in the main book. But there's nothing like that here. Instead we get an incredibly thorough and detailed examination of how things like con games work, how robbery operations go down, and how a criminal syndicate functions. Everything works to support the noir setting and background. Most of it could be applied to any game in this genre.

The Gaunt section of the book expands on the already pretty extensive coverage of this group from the main book. There's more focus here on Gaunt culture-- including religion within that group (something I hadn't considered in going through the core book). This section talks about a Gaunt campaign and the thematics of playing a shunned minority group. That's a classic theme in more modern approaches to noir (less so in earlier stories). I find that a little interesting given that we're echoing a period which already had a great deal of prejudice and ethnic tension regarding existing groups (Blacks, Asians, Hispanics). It does make me wonder if creating a fantasy analogue for those groups makes dealing with those questions easier and more palatable in a game.

The last part of the Gaunts and the Underworld also spends some time considering Gaunts as criminals-- both their own networks and as members of existing criminal groups. I like that we get some specific integration between the two halves of the book. It also looks at how Gaunts function as player characters in a mixed group as well as how a purely Gaunt-based campaign might work. As with other sections, the book provides a number of interesting campaign frames for that. Most, if not all, of the material in this part of the book is narrative rather than mechanical. No new character creation options, backgrounds or skills only really show up in a 2+ page appendix at the back-- keeping it from getting in the way of the setting description.

For Edge of Midnight GMs
I don't think Gaunts and the Underworld is an essential book for running the setting, but it is incredibly useful. If you plan on having conventional crime and criminals be a central part of the campaign, then you'd want to pick this up. Given that we're talking about a noir setting that's pretty likely.

The first 120 pages of the book will be of great use to anyone running a 20th-century campaign. Ideas about crime and how that might intersect with the PCs' stories is well worth it. It is an excellent resource-- like a better and more focused version of some of those Writers Digest books on crime writing. While the material comes from the particular Edge of Midnight setting, it could be applied to most other games with little work. The appendix of slang terms at the back will be especially useful for noir GMs.

Like Gaunts and the Underworld, this volume deals with two separate aspects of the Edge of Midnight setting. It also continues the tradition of naming the book one way and then having the order of materials be opposite. The first section of covers detectives of all kinds-- police, private investigators and vigilantes. The second section looks closer at Warlocks, the generic name for spell-casters in the setting. It provides a little more background, an actual tradition of magic and a number of Warlock organizations. Again this is a sourcebook intended for both players and GMs but there's not clear separation of that material. For NPCs, organizations and plots with secrets, GMs will have to consider what the players may have read.

The material on detectives takes up about 106 pages of the 176-page book. It opens with an extensive and freakishly detailed section on crime scenes, investigation, and mysteries. Over the course of 22 dense pages, the authors provide a primer on forensics in the broadest sense. We get diagrams of how teams arrange themselves when tailing a suspect; an illustration of the different types of fingerprints; on-scene processes; definitions of trace evidence; and so on. While the material is keyed to the time period of the game (late 40's, early 50's) it has general application. There's nothing here in a way of mechanics-- just notes for the GM and players on how to handle an investigation scenario. For gamemasters wanting to create a sense of verisimilitude, it would be a great resource. For Gumshoe players it could be especially useful.

After discussing general investigations, the book covers three kinds of detectives and the particular situations they face. What's noticeable here- as in the Gaunts and Underworld book- is that the unique aspects of the setting: magic, Gaunts, memory problems do get mentioned but the greater focus remains on how these things function in the day-to-day. The Law Enforcement section provides a run down of typical crimes and how they get dealt with. It also considers difficult situations like Internal Affairs and corrupt cops. National Law Enforcement gets several pages of discussion as well. The Private Investigator chapter looks at the difficult lives they face and the questionable legality of some of their methods. Ideas for methods, kinds of cases and PI archetypes flesh out the text. The chapter on Vigilantes considers both the revenge seeking adventurer and also the more extreme costumed avenger. Again there's good solid material here for these kinds of characters as PCs or as someone crossing the group's path. Each chapter includes campaign frames for how a GM might set up a campaign revolving exclusively around that group.

The last 60+ pages of this volume considers Warlocks, those trained in the power to manipulate physical forces in the world. The first chapter of this section echoes and expands on material appearing in the core book. It provides more detail on police "Crystal Ball Squads" where Warlocks oversee other Warlocks- a nice connect to the first part of the book. There no new mechanics here- mostly NPCs, thoughts on what Warlocks face and their treatment. The last chapter presents a number of Warlock organizations and groups-- providing some rich for for GMs wanting to expand the occult underground in their game.

Sandwiched in between those two chapters is one which brings something new to The Edge of Midnight. The eleven pages dealing with Voudoun throws a wrench into the magical cosmology established-- or so it would appear at first glance. In standard EoM, Warlocks practice a “magic” which is a kind of science, affecting basic natural forces. While there might be some superstitions and treatment of that magic as dark-- it doesn't seem to have any connections to 'classical' magic as presented in history. Here we have a tradition presented which has come through and its practitioners require the use of ritual to carry out their magics. Mind you, those magics remain the same set of powers available to conventional Warlocks but they require a different approach. In some ways that's a cop out, but in others it does open of the possibility of having Warlocks with a slightly different approach or ethos. My one big objection to this section is that it in a couple of places it references and spoils significant setting material from the GM's section of the core book. That's really sloppy.

The Warlock section as a whole is decent and interesting, providing some new ideas on how to use them in a campaign. Once again there's nearly no mechanical material in this sourcebook. Only at the end do we get two pages of new rules for additional backgrounds and professions.

For Edge of Midnight GMs
Not to be too repetitive, but again this isn't an essential book for running the setting, but it is incredibly useful. If you plan on having crime and detection be a central part of the campaign, then you'd want to pick this up. The Warlock material is optional and interesting but not essential.

The first 100+ pages of Warlocks and Detectives will be of great use to anyone running a 20th-century campaign. Ideas about law enforcement, detectives and how those could intersect with the PCs' stories make it worth it. As with the Gaunts and the Underworld this provides an excellent resource-- like a better and more focused version of some of those Writers Digest books on crime writing. While the material comes from the particular Edge of Midnight setting, it could be applied to most other games with little work. GMs of pulp adventurer games (ala The Spider; Justice, Inc; or The Shadow) ought to pick this up.

The Naked City sourcebook covers the cities and locations of The Edge of Midnight. The core book for the game covers the city of Gateway (the San Francisco analogue), while this book presents five others. It also provides a chapter on other locations, the borderlands (literal and figurative) of this magical noir universe. Once again this is a 176 page book with a dense text design. Little in the way of specific mechanics appear. Instead it provides background details and notes. Three pages at the end do present some new backgrounds and professions.

The player information problem rears its head again in this book. The introduction tries to split the difference by suggesting players should check in with GMs. Why not say this is a GM-only book? Or better yet, why not actually provide some split of material between player facing and GM facing ideas?

The first five chapters each cover an individual city in the Edge of Midnight world. Those are:
* Central City: The Chicago analogue for the setting. Of course organized crime and the mob take center stage here in this crossroads of the United Commonwealth.
* New Eden: The New York of EoM: While organized crime appears here, the focus seems to be on wealth and power as a motivating factor in daily lives.
* Nova Roma: The capitol of the United Commonwealth: The beating heart of political corruption with an attitude of extreme prohibition towards magic.
* Paradiso: The Los Angeles analogue: It lies as the border of Belacatan, the clumsily named Mexico-esque neighboring country.
* Terminus: Standing in for New Orleans and all of the other southern metropoli: Closest to the Cuban analogue of Iberana there's a sense of the mythic pervading the atmosphere.

The book does a nice job of distinguishing each city. There's the lingering question in the setting of how much everyone remembers about the past. GMs can play that up more as an aspect of the noir genre or as a strange Dark City-like facet. Each city has a different way of dealing with its own history, though that's discussed more explicitly in some of the chapters than others. I like the strange open nature of the game and the map- suggesting but not confirming that these might actually be the only major cities in the country. That's kind of a creepy thought- with everything in the middle as flyover country or the backwoods. Don't think too hard about the actual logic of that.

Each chapter begins with a decent map-- more to show the general "shape" of the city. Some places are loosely numbered on the map, but the details pretty minimal and arbitrary. An Overview gives a general perspective on the history and tone of each city. This would probably be the best information to provide a PC. Pretty extensive discussions of both Crime and Law Enforcement in the city follow. The chunkiest section of each chapter covers the various neighborhoods of the city. That provides some named locales and features for the GM. Several pages of NPCs- usually tied to the earlier material- appear. Some of these provide more interesting hooks than others, but gamemasters can probably find something to use here. Lastly each chapter suggests a couple of campaign possibilities for the city. The book gives about 25 pages or so to each one.

The last chapter of the book covers everything else. I was excited that we might get some more general discussion, but we only get five pages covering rural areas and small towns bordering the major six cities. That could have easily been developed further. After that the book deals with the Borderlands of neighboring states. On the one hand I was a little worried since the nebulousness of the world outside the United Commonwealth seemed to be part of the setting. However the book doesn't range too far.

Instead it sticks pretty close to the expected stereotypes-- for better or worse. The noir genre often plays off of and reinforces those stereotypes so it is to be expected. And what would be a Los Angeles-type story without a run to the Mexican border. A Touch of Evil remains one of the most important noir touchstones. We get a version of Mexico (Belacatan), Cuba (Iberana), a revolutionary control country (Nuevo Dia) and a Banana Republic (Santo Baltasar). One has to give the authors crdit for covering all of the basics. Each has some background, a few locations and some NPCs provided. The chapter ends with some suggestions about how to use these places in a campaign.

I'll confess I was a little disappointed with The Naked City as a sourcebook. Keep in mind that I love city books generally- they're my favorite kind of rpg book. Urban games are my favorite, where you have a static setting which can develop as a character for the campaign. I expected that The Naked City would provide some generic tools, ideas and resources for cities in the Edge of Midnight setting. Describing each city, while useful, isn't as useful as some general material (ala the Citybooks series or something like that). I expect the designers have a pretty clear sense of the world they've built and want ot get that across. However I'd be willing to bet that most campaigns actually stick to one city, with a trip to another one being a rarity. While that doesn't make the material in each chapter useless, it does mean that GMs will have to lift and modify from one chapter to the next.

For Edge of Midnight GMs
This is probably the least essential of the three Edge of Midnight sourcebooks. If you plan to move things outside of the Gateway campaign city then you might want to pick it up. As well if you want some general location and plot suggestions to pick up and replant in the campaign city, this could be a good source.

There's some good stuff here-- but mostly as a mine for ideas and details. I can imagine using some of this in a Pulp game, for example. I hit a few "wow-- great idea" moments in reading through, so if you're someone who does pick up sourcebooks for ideas, and you have an interest in noir, then its worth buying.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

RPGs I Like: The Edge of Midnight

What Is It?
Noir 1950's with magic in an alternate universe.

Gaming the Lost
I wanted to look at a game I missed when it first came out about four years ago. In fact I hadn't heard about The Edge of Midnight at all until I came across a copy of Warlocks and Detectives, a supplement. The strangeness and detail of that book made me hunt down the core book for a read. At first I expected something like Cast A Deadly Spell or a noir version of the Lord Darcy series. Perhaps it would be a bastardization of the The Dresden Files. I'm pleased to say it isn't exactly that- it is a noir magic game, but it has strong idea of its story and interesting detail. While it isn't exactly what I wanted, it is a cool setting worth a look at for source material or to be run as a smallish campaign.

Preliminary Details
The Edge of Midnight comes in a 224 page hard cover. It can also be purchased as a pdf from Studio 2 Publishing. The line managed to support the core book plus three supplement books and a GM's screen. The publisher web page appears not to have been significantly updated since 2007. Given the core book has a pub date of 2006 that seems to suggest they went under pretty quickly. That's a pity since this is an ambitious and interesting game. Rob Vaux appears as the main author, with Kevin Millard, Ree Soesbee and Martin Hall listed as contributors. That's a pretty solid writing staff. The layout can get a little busy at times-- with some really dense text design. Still it maintains a complete impression.

What's the Story Then?

The Edge of Midnight takes place in a world that feels like late 1940's, early 1950's noir. That atmosphere pervades everything along with a kind of fuzziness. People remember that there was a war-- but not exactly when it finished and what happened. The details run away from people, even those who know that they fought over on another continent. People blame that on the Warlocks- though exactly why that is remains unclear. They did something? They caused this? No one can point to the facts. The vagueness and memory echoes Dark City obviously but it also fits with the timelessness of noir as a genre- things like Kiss Me Deadly feel like a fantasy sometimes as it is. I like that touch- and GMs can certainly play up the unreality and fabulistic nature of the setting.

The game presents a United States analogue, the United Commonwealth, with important cities being stand ins for Chicago (Central City), New York (Nova Roma), and Los Angeles (Paradiso). Locations outside the country don't really matter so much. A couple of key elements besides time, memory and names make this different from our world. First people called Warlocks possess magical talents. However such talents make them pariahs-- magic use has been made illegal in a move the book compares to Prohibition. Warlocks exist at the fringes, where they're useful but any who get in the spot light or cross the powers that be get arrested. The other shady underworld is almost a literal one with the presence of Gaunts, the term used for people who have contracted an infection which changes their physiology, apparently magically. Stronger and more powerful they appear hideous and cause physical discomfort in normal humans around them. They exist as a feared minority with their own society hidden away.

The Edge of Midnight presents magic not as classic witchcraft or sorcery. Instead it takes the form of Warlocks being able to manipulate forces. They can learn “scientific magic” skills in six areas: Electricity, Gravity, Kinetics, Magnetism, Tensile Energy, Thermal Energy. Some other factors affect Warlocks including magical addiction and corruption. The idea of magic as a kind of extension of pure theoretical science-- but still treated as wizardry and feared threw me off. I expected perhaps a more Call of Cthulhu or Dresden Files approach to magic, with creatures, mythology and all of the classic trappings. The choice does limit some things, but plays into some of the greater suggestions of the background. I'll come back to that.

Getting to the Crunch
Generally I'm not a mechanics guy-- and certainly I went into reading The Edge of Midnight with the idea that I could adapt the setting to another system. That would be a pretty easy task as it has quite basic mechanics. The game has both attributes and skills, rated from one to ten. There are six attributes (Brains, Brawn, Build, Gut, Moxie, Smoothness). I like the use of genre-appropriate names, though it means having unusual terms. The pool of skills is limited which can be a plus- it means any one skill has more utility. Of course that includes some catch-alls like Lore, a general Perception skills and the odd Puzzles skill (something I don't care for in games). The rules allow characters higher starting values in attributes than skills, but interestingly those two factors aren't directly additive in resolution.

I have to mention this since it isn't a mechanic I'd seen before. In The Edge of Midnight players make tests against a target number given by the GM. The player rolls 2d10 and add one die to the appropriate attribute value and one die to their appropriate skill rank. If both totals beat the target number it's a complete success. If only one does, you get a partial success. That's an odd mechanic and one the surface reminds me of the ORE mechanic in that you can gain two+ sets of information from a single roll. A general read doesn't seem to suggest any other special uses for that effect. In some ways it just seems like an added complication.

Characters get to pick “up to three” additional “backgrounds” which provide bonuses, from a list of twenty-seven. Eight of those apply only to Gaunt characters and three to Warlocks. There's no explanation as to why someone wouldn't take the full three as there's no drawback to them. That's an oddness that happens through the text-- moments which make me stop and reread. Players also get to pick a Profession which gives some added benefits. But generally it's a basic character creation set up and a simple system.

The Party Problem
If there's a problem in the mechanics and the set up it lies in some open questions about what a group ought to look like. It seems to be written with the idea of a mixed group of PCs in mind-- with one or two Warlocks and perhaps a Gaunt. An all Warlock party is suggested as an exception rather than a rule. But the game doesn't offer that much in the way of “cool” options for players who don't play Warlocks or Gaunts. Those approaches get a ton of material and discussion-- leaving other archetypes with nothing to help set them apart. That's a problem that needs tweaking in a setting like this.

The book does provide an interesting linking reason for why the players would join together. That's tied to some of the secrets of the world, so I don't want to spoil too much there.

The game provides a lot of good material-- NPCs, city descriptions, ideas for groups, locations, plot hooks and such. There's a really excellent and extensive bibliography for inspirational material of all kinds. There's a solid index to boot. The only thing missing would be a sample adventure, but I spotted a couple on the publisher's website. The Gamemaster section does provide a number of ideas about the secrets and reasons behind the setting. There's a canon version which I liked, as well as a couple of other variations, each of which have some appeal and could be great for a medium length campaign ending up with some revelation about those concepts. There's also mention of how one might make this echo Dark City even more closely...

If you're looking for a new and interesting campaign motif which could be easily adapted, I'd recommend tracking down a copy of this. The mechanics could be easily replaced and, quite frankly, I think this could work better with another system. For example, one could do a Gumshoe based game using some of the ideas from Mutant City Blues-- magic could operate under the same structural principles as the Quade Diagram from there. While the setting has a strong logic to it, GMs could twist it to be more classically magical. That would make this more of a location and framework resource.

I'm glad I found this. It doesn't break any new ground mechanically but what is presented is a solid and well-crafted campaign setting. It reminds me of the best campaign frames put out for Savage Worlds (Necessary Evil, Rippers). If you like noir and urban fantasy, it is worth a look.