Sunday, February 12, 2017


Most OSR community is based around Dungeons and Dragons, however like a lot of Europeans my first encounter with roleplaying or fantasy gaming was not through D&D itself by through reflections of those who had read a copy or heard of the idea and created their own.

Like a lot of early British roleplayers my nostalgia is really for Fighting Fantasy, a formative experience that was notable different in tone from American fantasy while being composed of much the same tropes.

Troika! is an attempt to create a retro-clone that brings together Warhammer and Fighting Fantasy into a simple rules system that bakes weird fantasy into core of character creation in the same way that the Ratcatcher career did in the 1980s.

The basic mechanics are pretty simple. Mainly 2d6 are used and the basic characteristics are Skill, Stamina and Luck.

If you are attempting something against the environment you try to roll under your Skill on two dice, if contested you roll and add, aiming for the highest total.

Combat is pretty interesting, with the use of an initiative bag filled with counters to determine who has the next action and rounds being variable length due to a turn end token.

One of my bugbears with OSR games is also fixed with the use of a damage table that ensures that damage is very consistent and occasionally poor and sometimes high.

My biggest issue with the game (apart from some of the inconsistently sloppy game design) is that I find a lot of the esoteric fantasy over the line into incoherence and obscurity.

Instead of being a stepping stone to your own interpretation some of the ideas that are enshrined in the rulebook are mood-killing whimsical (brawlers are from the Society of Beef Steaks, one of the backgrounds is as a Befouler of Ponds), story killing (spell results that turn the caster into a pig) or just impenetrable (the Cacogen).

There's a lot to admire in Troika!, in particular the way that a particular view of weird fantasy is invoked through the origin stories, items and abilities of the characters. I think it might be one of those games that I might have to play to really understand.

Saturday, February 11, 2017


Cabal is a game about sinister conspiracies trying to seize power through a corporation or organisation. Mechanically it feels weirdly like a game where a group of players share a single Runequest character and try and make them a Rune Lord.

The company has various attributes that are rated on 0 to 100 scale with points being spent at generation time and then the players going on missions to try and raise the value of the attributes by between 1 and 5.

The target value is also used to set the difficulty and provide the mechanisms of opposition. The game uses a GM to manage the opposition and provide the colour to the missions. Something that feels like a design cop-out.

The game does make some interesting use of the fact that the players take on the role of individuals in the company and therefore you get to play very different characters and the risk of them dying is lessened by the meta-reward to the organisation.

However it also has an experience mechanism that makes characters who survive missions both more powerful and hence valuable. Therefore the same risk and reward pattern settles in as for more conventional games.

Cabal has a lot of precedents, I have to admit that I thought it was an updated version of Covenant. It also reminded me of Wilderness of Mirrors and Black Seven but without the structure of either as it has a broader scope than just espionage.

Reign does a similar job of mixing individuals and organisations but Cabal is considerably simpler at the cost of flavour.

I'm not sure Cabal hits the spot for me, it relies too much on a GM to create interesting stories and the implications of playing an organisation are not really explored in the game design. The relationships between characters and the organisation are too shallow and conventional to be really exciting.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Undercroft #9

Issue 9 of The Undercroft (buy digitally here) marks a step change for the zine, moving to a larger A5 booklet format and switching from its characteristic red covers to black. Cedric Plante contributes an amazing cover in an etched style white on black. Overall the impression is of something more substantial and professional than a regular photocopied zine.

The content isn't markedly different, a collection of monsters (including a penis monster, a giant penis you can fight), rule variations for Lamentations of the Flame Princess and a few historic research pieces, this time the subject is the occult properties of those executed by hanging.

At a quick glance the interesting pieces look like the Skinned Moon Daughter class, drawn from a campaign that looks like it is heavily influenced by Arctic Circle cultures and Nine Summits and the Matter of Birth, an adventure that seems to be a fantasy recasting of the Dutch and English exploration of the South China Sea with added anti-life death cult.

Undercroft is one of my most intriguing Patreon campaigns, I'm not really the target audience for the material but I enjoy the quirky distinctive nature of the material and it provides a regular transmission from outside the indie storygames bubble that I spend a lot of my time in.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Blade of the Iron Throne

Blade of the Iron Thone is a Kickstarted successor to the Riddle of Steel. I haven't played either Riddle of Steel or Blade of the Iron Throne and I'm not sure I ever will. Primarily I was interested in Blade to have access to its mechanics as I never picked up Riddle of Steel.

The basis of the system is a dice pool builder of d12s that are aiming for a target number of 7 to be considered a success. The systems mainly aim to manipulate either the number of successes required to complete a task and the number of dice that are added to the pool.

The basic concept is pretty sound, this after all is basic the World of Darkness system with a dice that is easier to roll.

Unsurprisingly there is a substantial focus on combat and simulating small melee battles, there are even different hit location charts for different kinds of attacks. Interestingly there is more abstraction than I was expecting and more emphasis on a fictional conceit of looking at discrete units of interesting action. It isn't as dry as I was expecting, although armour does model three types of damage so there is certainly a level of detail which the system revels in.

Magic also gets a bunch of specific systems with an idea that magic-using is corrupting and sorcerers need to manage risks as well as rewards. I was also surprised here as you don't get the normal endless, droning list of spells with their specific triggers and effects. Instead you get these broad "mysteries" around themes like cursing and enslavement. This definitely moves things to a more mysterious and flexible form of magic that is both more unpredictable than Vancian conventions and more powerful in terms of where it might take the story. Crunchy but not dull.

There is a default setting in the back of the book but the ethos being invoked here is very much the Conan stories with freebooters encountering sinister and strange things at the fringes of civilisation and bloodily fighting for their lives at the heart of it.

Overall its still hundreds of pages long and I'm not sure I have the motivation or the audience to discover its nuances but it does seem to be occupying a sensible middle-ground between Burning Wheel and Dungeons and Dragons clones.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Beyond the Wall

Beyond the Wall aims to re-create the classic "first adventure" story of both classic fantasy stories and D&D games. A group of young and inexperienced people venture into the unknown and are tested and changed by the experience.

It's looking to recreate that level 1 or level 0 experience in a rules system that is similar to AD&D 1st edition or RedBox D&D. However in an acknowledgement of more modern designs it also aims to be zero prep. There is a collection of playbooks providing tables to roll up a background with attendant stat changes on top of the basic class templates.

Scenario packs build on top of this by providing a basic scenario structure with random elements to keep it fresh but within the theme chosen for the pack. These are quite neat structures for OSR play.

Beyond the Wall aims to deliver a low-key fantasy experience where the fantastic awes with both fear and astonishment. It roots the adventure experience in the character's life within a community and therefore tries to get that "there and back sensation".

I like a lot of things about what Beyond the Wall is trying to do but like a lot of OSR/nostalgia games it strands itself between the experience it is trying to create and the rules that it hopes will create that experience.

Since the game is really about low-level play you would expect the rule system to be simplified and focussed in equal measure. However it keeps multiple types of saving throws and the Base Attack Bonus vs. Armour Class combat that has generated so much inactivity for a lot of dice rolling.

It has a simple roll under a statistic system but then keeps random generation of statistics rather than linking them to the class archetype.

Magic is still presented as a massive list of spells to be selected from, rather contradicting the desire to restore the specialness of magic.

So ultimately I don't feel motivated to try playing this. For me it doesn't really present anything over Fighting Fantasy and Dragon Warriors if you want an authentic old-school experience or the Pathfinder or D&D beginner boxes if you want a simplified d20 experience.

I will be borrowing the ideas in the scenario packs for other situations however.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

The Curse of the Yellow Sign

The Curse of the Yellow Sign is a triptych of scenarios around the theme of Carcosa and Hastur written by John Wick and funded via Kickstarter.

The first scenario is somewhat ho-hum, Nazis in the Congo discovering a door during an archaeological dig. There's nothing particularly interesting around the set up and while the characters are strong they are also caricatures that don't really make a lot of sense. They are pulp characters rather than people.

The second scenario is a bit of classic for the King in Yellow, a group gets together to rehearse the play; but the play comes to life! The basic outline of which reminded me a lot of Tatterdemalion from Fatal Experiments.

There are a few interesting touches such as using a Shining-esque derelict hotel as a rehearsal space and having some of the actors expecting a simulated serial killing to occur during the rehearsal to lull suspicions.

The biggest problem with these scenarios though is the motivations for performing the play and how the performers come by or create a script and neither question is answered in a satisfying or inspiring way for me here.

It is the third scenario, Archimedes 7, that blows my mind. Set far in the future with a cryogenic-frozen crew being revived by a ship's computer that needs them to overcome the sabotage and madness that has overcome the flight crew. The setup is fascinating but again we've been here more than once. What is amazing is that everything about the initial situation is turned upside down over the course of the scenario. It is hard to talk about how expectations are subverted but every cliché is overthrown into darkness and the characters rediscover themselves.

The book also packages up a nice rules-light system called Unspeakable which is heavier than Cthulhu Dark and relies on a GM to adjudicate skill challenges but other than that looks like a neat way of handling the "investigator" archetype.

"Madness" is melodramatic and Lovecraftian and not really a model of mental illness, if that is one of your push button issues.

If you've never read a King in Yellow scenario then this collection is a great exposition of the tropes and themes. All of it is competently executed but really Archimedes 7 is the really outstanding piece of work that makes we want play immediately.

Sunday, April 03, 2016


I bought the ashcan version of Cartel which means that this is an early opinion of an early release. On the other hand it also means the book is much more readable than the usual Apocalypse World inspired game with its indigestible chunks of playbooks.

The natural form of a PbtA game is not meant to be a book but is better as a collection of PDFs that can be printed out as needed. You can find the playbooks on the Magpie Games site.

Cartel is an attempt to write a Mexican-American game which makes it feel a bit depressing as it is about drug manufacturing and smuggling in Durango.

I was drawn in by the references to Breaking Bad and The Wire and it will be interesting to see if the downward spiral mechanics match the fiction that inspired the game.

Given my lack of knowledge about living in a narcostate I initially found the game a little hard to get into. I worried about authenticity and a lack of handholds to get into the right mindset.

Then I kind of realised that I had to trust the author and follow the archetypes. Assume they do a reasonable job to set you up with the dilemmas and strengths of the characters in this world. If I act according to my game strengths and avoid my game weaknesses maybe I'll get an insight into what this world is like.

The game seems to want to play itself out of over a mini-campaign as the characters need to rise before they fall but I am now eager to find the right venue to pitch it.