Liminal Chapter 3 – Crews and Factions

Continuing my read though of the Liminal PDF, I continue to be impressed by the art. Some of it is photographic, heavily digitally manipulated, but even that shows up the paucity of really great creativity in the third edition of Unknown Armies. While I love that game, and value the effort of crowdsource the art, there are few pieces in that large work that, to my mind evoke the spirit of the game and stand and interesting and memorable art in itself. In Liminal, every piece of art feels right.

This chapter introduces factions as well as the concept of the Crew (the adventuring party). But we are promised more detail on the factions in a later chapter. The factions get a mention here, because you might decide you want your crew to be part of one of the Factions. So, if your players are inspired by Rivers of London, their crew could be part of P Division, the magic cops. Or, if they really wanted to play Vampire, they could be politicking within the Sodality of the Crown, the “Camerilla” of this world.

The other factions are:

  • The Order of St. Bede – Anglican and catholic exorcists
  • The Mercury Collegium – magical crooks
  • The Council of Merlin – wizards
  • The Court of the Queen of Hyde Park or The Court of the Winter King – Fae, or
  • The Jaeger Family

But, unlike the old World of Darkness games, this one is built to mix and match the occult creatures, so your Crew can include Wizards and Vampires (actually I remember from chapter 2 that players can only be Dhampirs, which have retained their humanity – at least if the listed concepts are a hard limit).

So the rest of the chapter walks you through a session of crew creation. And I wonder if it might have been better coming before the character creation chapter, as it builds the world in which your game takes place. That said, I remember how frustrated I was that character creation is only detailed in the GMs book of UA3, so maybe I won’t go there. In the end, th s is a process that’s moderated by GMs, so if that say go away and make or characters, then we’ll stick them together, or come armed with an idea of who you won’t to be, but we we’ll flesh out characters as we build the world, it’s up to them.

So we start off with a concept. And here the crew concept is definitely freeform, the book only offers “some possibilities”, private investigators, deniable assets of a faction (though we’ll come back to “deniability” later, or people that have been forced together because they share a common enemy.

Just like Unknown Armies, this game recommends the Crew think of a common goal, such as the defeat of of that common enemy, or a; ongoing task like keeping the Hidden World hidden. In the first “box-out” I think have encountered in this game (though there is no box) the author recommends that a character’s drive should not be entire antithetical to the goal of the Crew. Author Paul Mitchener also recognises that the goal needs to force the crew to go out and investigate Cases – just hiding from your enemy does not an adventure make.

Then, each player in the crew chooses one asset that the crew share, with suggestions and including: a base of operations, connections, hangers-on, informants, an occult library, a patron or a hated enemy. All of these, and more , of course help create the world the player characters operate in

Continuing the world building, the GM then presents the players with a list of the factions he plans to use, and each other play in turn names one with with they have a good relationship, and one with whom they have a poor relationship. Only three players can name the same faction as good, at with point the faction becomes an ally to the Crew, or poor, at which point the faction becomes the crew’s enemy. Other names factions will end up with a score of positive or negative one or two, which abstracts the nature of the relationship (and I am sure) will modify dice rolls in play.

For the final bit of worldbuilding, each player comes up with a hook, which should be the springboard for a case, not the whole adventure. Like the pre-credits scene of a TV shoe. It’s up to play to reveal what’s behind that opening scene.

The chapter ends with four example crews, academic researchers, Free-Lance investigators, a Norfolk crime “family”, and, SCD9 – a “deniable” “undercover” unit affiliated to P Division. Though I would argue that, as the illustration features them wandering around in disposable paper SOC coveralls, bagged with the SCD9 logo, they don’t appear either undercover, or deniable 🙂

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Liminal Chapter 2 – Character Creation

We are introduced to a crew with a group portrait. One of them is, I think, Ygraine from chapter one. There’s a tall lumberjack with glowing eyes who, I guess, will be a werewolf, and a wizard in training and a former police officer. I think we’ll meet all four in examples thoughout the book.

Character creation starts off with a concept and a drive. As I mentioned in my previous post I am coming to this reading pre-equipped with a character I want to build: William Palmer, the Pilgrim.

His concept is easy: cursed with eternal life by the faerie King, he has walked the border between the mundane world and the Hidden for almost 1000 years. His Drive, to end his curse and die.

But we must choose a focus, and here the choices are limited, not freeform + we must be tough, determined or magician. I would argue the William Palmer is determined, but he has used spells more than once, if I recall correctly. You pick up a secret or two in 1000 years. If I must choose between the two I will wait to later in the chapter (or the book) to see haw it works mechanically, but given how rarely he uses magic in the series, I tend towards Determined. (There’s a note here about how a werewolf’s transformation is like a spell, but a werewolf character is not a magician focus, because their shapechangeing is limited to just two forms.)

The player must spend seventeen points on skills, with no skill more than four. Two points in a skill makes you relatively proficient, apparently. There are 21 skills. Traits are supernatural abilities, training or innate advantages that cost one or two points. You have five points to spend. But you can get extra points to spend on traits if you also take supernatural limitations. So I guess you can get extra vampire traits if you also have an aversion to garlic.

You also have three attributes: Endurance, Will and Damage. In many games, your attributes add to, or apply a bonus/penalty to skills. But in this one it’s the other way around. your skills enhance your attribute. Your endurance in eight plus your athletics skill, and will, eight plus your conviction skill. Hmmm I am intrigued to see how these are used mechanically. Your damage is defined by your weapon, it’s d6 for unarmed combat, d6+1 for a knife etc up to d6+4 for a heavy firearm. Again I shall have to wait until I read about the mechanics before I pass judgement, but right now this feels like clashing philosophies – a desire to abstract (mundane) combat because it’s not the heart of the game, yet the need to differentiate between heavy and light weapons for … what? “Tactical” reasons? My touchpoint for abstracted, yet deadly combat is Unknown Armies. We’ll see later on how this compares.

I turn the page, some more great illustration, and then something that catches me unawares – Character Concepts. I had imagined, earlier, that the Concept was entirely free-form. But here with a number of concepts, or archetypes, with suggested “builds”. The Concepts are:

  • Academic Wizard
  • Changeling
  • Clue-up Criminal
  • Dhampir
  • Eldrich Scholar
  • Face
  • Gutter Mage
  • Investigator
  • Knight
  • Man in Black
  • Warden, and
  • Werewolf

Are these just examples or are they the defined list of classes? The book doesn’t make it clear whether players must chose from this list or if they cane make one of their own. It seems freeform enough that making your own shouldn’t be a problem, but the lost seems comprehensive enough to suggest that you shouldn’t need to. I’d prefer some clarity in this matter, but right now I am opting for choosing a concept. If only because one of the Concepts, the Face, seems to work for our man Pilgrim.

Each concept comes with suggested skills (in the face’s case, Art, Business, Education, Charm, Empathy, High Society, Rhetoric – no increased Endurance or Will for us) and traits (Agent of Ravenstower, Graceful, Presence, Rich, Silver Tongue), plus a limitation (Obliged) and a focus (Determined).

Players get 17 points to spend on skills.You can start with no more than four in a skill. This is explained with reference to a Skill Cap which seems over complicated at this point, but other uses for the Skill Cap might become apparent later. Skills at three or higher can have specialities.”an area of focus within a Skill” which “grants a +2 bonus when using a Skill in that area.”

There are 21 skills, seven in each of three areas: physical, mental and social. I am giving my William Palmer Awareness, Melee, Stealth, Survival and Vehicles from the physical list. Five points spent, I could have five of each area, and two extra points, but maybe I should focus more. From mental skills, I’ll choose Art, Business, Education and Lore. I might come back for a point in Medicine. Socially, I’ll take Conviction, Empathy, Rhetoric and Streetwise. Again I am slightly tempted by Taunt – Palmer often solves issues by goading Fae into bad decisions, but I was thinking that’s how I would use rhetoric. Thirteen skills at one point. Four points left to spend. Let’s look at some of the skills in more detail.

William Palmer runs a rare books business, which he inheritable from a friend. He started a trust fund in the twelfth century, to maintain a chapel in which a roman centurion sleeps, but despite these example of business acumen, it’s the bit in the skill description about fae that tempts me to add some points to this skill “When dealing with the Hidden World, the business skill is relevant when it comes to making bargains, which can be a vital survival skill when dealing with the Fae.”

However, with only four points to spend, there are two other skills that deserve the points more. Palmer has picked up a lot of knowledge in his millennium of living on the earth, but it seems, all quite shallow, except for his knowledge of the hidden world, which marks him out from most “hotbloods”, so that deserves an extra point or two. The other one is conviction, Palmer is not the devout pilgrim he once was, but he is still a man of faith. I am tempted to put his conviction up to four, or to make it three but spend a point in the Religious Faith speciality, but in the end, I think I’ll leave it at three and make his Lore three too. All my points are spent.

When it comes to traits the choices are more difficult. But there is one obvious one. Palmer has been known to utter a spell, but isn’t a full fledged magician. There is a Countermagic trait (“You know defensive spells which protect you and others against magical attacks. You can use your Lore Skill as a defence against magic, and can make a Lore skill test to disperse a magical effect. In both cases, this will usually be an opposed roll”) which, if I recall correctly, is pretty much the only sort of magic I have heard him use in the drama.

I am struggling over Rapid Healing.

“You rapidly heal from any injury, recovering d6 points of Endurance every hour. This rapid healing even applies when you have negative Endurance. You even eventually come back from the dead unless decapitated or incinerated. You are resistant to poisons and all but immune to disease.”

Palmer is cursed with immortality, but I believe this doesn’t come with rapid healing. I am sure I have heard references to him taking “years” to recover from injury. That said, in a role-playing game, taking a year or two out to recover isn’t much fun for your fellow players, so were I playing for real, I think I would have to choose this. Except …

“Any character with rapid healing has a flaw—one source of injury from which they cannot regenerate damage. You will not come back from the dead when killed through your flaw.”

Now, if William Palmer had one thing that could definitely kill him, he’d have jumped in a pool of it/stabbed himself with it/swallowed it, or whatever, years ago. He wants to die. I think if I was playing this for real, I’d negotiate with the GM that something can kill Palmer, but only the GM knows what it is.

So, if I took fast healing, despite my doubts, I would have two points left for traits. Palmer isn’t an Agent of Ravenstower (though reading the description, he might have been) or Always Prepared. Despite running a rare books business, he was snot a Bookworm, or a least, he does not exhibit the mechanics of this trait. He is neither Brawny nor Forgettable., Frightening nor Graceful. Oh, but he is an Investigator. Not a policeman or a detective, but a man who can “tell when someone is lying or hiding something, […] and […] find contacts and witnesses.” That trait is worth two points, so that’s all I can have.

I could get more points to spend, if I took on a limitation. And Obliged is the one that is closest to the Pilgrim stories, but Palmer has categorically not given his service to the Fae.

I feel though that this is a game that suits “session zero” style character creation in a group, William might have to choose a different trait if someone else had set their heart on being a policeman.

We finish with four sample characters, the group we met at the front of the chapter, and yes, I had them right.

Random adventure site creation in Forbidden Lands

Some GMs may be wary of random encounter tables, worried that they will throw up something that makes no sense within the developing story. I hope this shared experience will convince you to try creating story entirely at random. It’s what I did last November. Which was an emergency situation: I had not been planning to run Forbidden Lands for a while, but after our one-off (which we released last year as the Ravenland Tales Actual Play) the party wanted to continue, and more than that they wanted me to run an extra game at our gaming retreat.

At first I thought that I could simply use a Ravens Purge adventure, but the party had already decided to head to the ruins of Wailers Hold, and I did’t think any of the published adventures really fitted that place. Of course my first error had been that I had not fed the party any legends which maybe would have tempted them to one of the published adventures. Now they were headed to somewhere I hadn’t planned, so I needed to work out what they would find.

Still feeling the chagrin of not givin them a legend or two, I started with the legends generator, to see what it might say about Wailers Hold. So I turned to page 26 and started rolling dice

“A long time ago, (roll … 32) during the Alder Wars, there was a (roll …44) beautiful (roll … 21) Druid (I immediately decided it was a Elven Druid) who sought (roll … 33) an enemy (hmmmm who I wonder) because of (roll … 24) a promise (made to a dwarf I thought, given that once Wailers Hold was a Dwarven city) and travelled to (I chose all of the following as I knew where they were going, and where they had got to, last time they played): a hill a days march away in the ruins north east ,

And the legend goes she (roll … 24 again) was never seen again, and that there is (roll 65!) an Elven ruby (which is cool because my Druid is an elf … this all fits!), but also (roll … 24 AGAIN!) cruel (roll… 66… ooh, roll again, just one dice … 3…oh just one) a cruel Demon. Aha! The enemy my elven Druid was searching for.

So a demon is my big bad. I went straight to the Demons section of the Gamemasters’ Guide to create one. But I am NOT going to tell you about that, as my players have not yet met him, and they, especially my co-host Dave, might read this.

Instead, let’s move to the village. I had decided, given the size of the ruins on the map, to make two adventure sites, I rolled the d6 twice and discovered that a there would be a village among the ruins, and a dungeon. I must admit I had hoped for a castle, but rather than ignore the rolls (which I could have done), I decided to run with it and see what developed.

I started by rolling a d6 to see what type (how large) the settlement is. A six – the village in the ruins of Wailers Hold is large. It was populated (d66, a 43) during the bloodmist. It’s is worth noting here that “during the bloodmist” is the most common result in this table, which gives me an insight into how the authors envision the world – very few of the settlements that existed before the bloodmist survived the demon invasion.

The ruler of the village is a (roll… 54) stern (roll… 43) oh, there is no ruler. It must be the people of the village who are stern.

The village problem is (roll… double one) Nightwargs… aha, probably because of that Demon the legend refers to. It’s famous for (roll … 56) worshiping demons. Aha, the villagers worship that demon in the legend! No wonder the Nightwargs prowl around. The village oddity is (roll … 14) an incomprehensible accent … hmmm, they must get that from communing with the demon. Now, I note here there is nothing to help you choose the kin. The assumption must be that villages are human, I guess, but or maybe I should refer to the map on page 46. Anyhow, I selected Alderlanders.

The village generator includes between zero and eleven “institutions”, larger villages get 1d6+5, which, for me, was Eight. They included two taverns, one inn (they drink a lot here), a mill, stables, smith, trading post (aha, I thought, this is one that buys and trades in stuff people manage to find in the ruins), and a militia. Quite how the milita is organised, given no system of civic government, I am not sure. I imagine them as a sort of “neighbourhood warg watch”.

Now here, I think I made a mistake. You can get some colourful detail for your Inn, but I used the same tables for the taverns too. The first had Barrels instead of chairs, planks instead of tables (15) served stewed turnips (24) and was frequented by old war veteran (37 – but I curious about this, surely the blood mist prevented most Wars for the last 300 years.) it was called (roll … 32)The Happy (roll … 35)Dog.

The second, The Old (16) Boar (32) Tavern was almost exactly the same, but instead of the … modest… furniture, it had a (roll …47) grumpy owner.

The place our adventurers actually went to, though, was the inn. Having had two places that randomly served stewed parsnips, I just assumed that the village grew only parsnips, so the inn served that too. I did roll (18) for its special guest and that turned out to be a “Scarred Treasure Hunter”. I had a name for him already, Wynchcliffe (no idea where that came from), and thought he would be the person who offered the location of the dungeon to the party (in return for a cut of what they found), having been scarred by whatever defended it. The inn’s oddity (63) was a birthday party, which I didn’t actually use when we played. The journey to Wailers Hold had taken enough play time, and I thought I would reserve it for the next session. The inn’s name was good though – 65 and 41, the Boisterous Girl.

Next, the dungeon. It is (roll … 4) an average dungeon with (roll … 9) ‘rooms’. It’s a (roll …61) tomb, built by Dwarves (I didn’t roll for this, as Wailer’s Hold was a Dwarven city). Neither did I roll for its history. I was having an idea, “it’s a tomb for the elven druid from the legend”, I thought, “built by her Dwarven lover, to whom she had made the promise… or maybe its HIS tomb. He was killed by the demon, and she came to avenge him… yes that’s it!” I did roll for the current inhabitants though, and got a 46 – Nightwargs. That fits with Nightwargs being a problem for the village, this is obviously where they are coming from. Is the demon trapped in the dungeon by the Nightwargs I wondered? But if it was, how do the villagers get to worship it? Still I did think then that our heroes might discover the demon as a big bad in the dungeon. That’s not how it panned out in the end though.

My notes, scrawled during dungeon creation.

The entrance to the dungeon is (roll… 26) down a hole. Right, so the scarred treasure hunter dug the hole. Its not the “proper” entrance to the tomb. It’s fresh, there may even be a rope dangling down. In my head I was already thinking he might have left one or two dead companions down there.

I won’t take you though all the rolls for the rooms. The hole led down through the ceiling of a corridor. At one end of which was a room with a creature, which I decided had a Nightwarg in it. And a valuable silver altar. This was (it would turn out) the most valuable treasure in the whole dungeon, in the (likely) first room the party would explore. I went off on some idle speculation that dwarves maybe built their tombs close to the surface because they live deeper underground and were tasking with building the world bigger to reach Huge’s hearth.

At the other end of the corridor was a stairway – a roll of six on the random room chart, which I rolled four times in a row… so it was a VERY long deep spiral staircase. That left only three more rooms in my dungeon. Thankfully they were all actual rooms, (well two rooms and a hall) not more staircase. But I was worried that this dungeon would not be big enough. Two of the rooms had multiple doors though. One had had two, one blocked and one trapped (I had the body of the scarred treasure hunters companion in this one to give my players a clue). The other had room three doors, I made one of those connect to the Hall but decided that, I could extend the dungeon through the other two, or deeper down the staircase, in play by rolling dice as the players explored. To do that though, they would have to defeat the two night wargs I put in that room. Actually I should be honest. I wrote “x? Nightwargs”. I’d decide how many exactly when I saw the challenge that the one upstairs gave the players.

The hall no items or traps in it. Just a creature. I rolled a 37. Undead. Not good enough. By now I had a story in my head about the elf who came to avenge the death of the dwarf and was cursed by the demon that killed him and now inhabited his tomb. I imagined the elf dancing for centuries with the cadaver of her Dwarven lover – and that’s what the players found.

As it turns out, by this time we were playing late into the night, so I had no need to extend the dungeon through those doors. Indeed I edited one encounter out … the Players were meant to discover the demon in that hall too, watching the cursed elf dance. But I decided the elf herself was threat enough for my players’ injured characters. The demon was … elsewhere. Perhaps they’ll meet it the next time we play…

Where I read: Liminal – Chapter 1

It’s time for another “where I read…” series. I have a a number of books, games I am unlikely to find the opportunity to play anytime soon, that I need to discipline myself to read and absorb. In the coming months, look forward to read-throughs of Vampire V and Phoenix Dawn Command, among others. Right now though, I am going to tackle the slimmest column in my book pile, not just because it will be the quickest, but it’s also the one I know least about and the one I am most interested in.

Among the unfinished draft posts that litter the unpublished area of this blog are more than a few about turning Ben Aaronovitch’s PC Peter Grant series of novels (otherwise known as the Rivers of London series) into a Role Playing Game. The posts are unfinished, and indeed the game is hardly started – just a few scribbled notes about Cortex, Fate and now, of course, the Year Zero Engine.

While I have been timewasting, Paul Mitchener has just got on with with it, producing a book that was Kickstarted a year ago. I did not kick in at the time, as my KS budget was spent, but the PDF just came out on Drive-thru, and being curious, even though I still didn’t really have the budget, I splashed out. To be honest I didn’t really look too deeply into the Kickstarter, as I worried I might be tempted to overspend. So I come to this book with as close to zero knowledge as you can get.

And colour me impressed. The art on the KS looked attractive, but seriously doesn’t do justice to the quality of art throughout the book. There one or two pieces that aren’t quite as good as the others but, by god, this is pretty, very pretty indeed. If I recall, the KS only has print on demand options available, quite rightly for a game with a limited print run, but … it’s so beautiful, this book deserves a proper printing.

Design and layout aren’t bad either, marred (for me) only by one thing: I am a typography snob and while, generally, type choices are excellent (I particularly like the use of Senator) , I am disappointed by the use of Mason for chapters and sub headings. Mason’s gothic stylings became a bit of a cliché on the covers of unlicensed Buffy encyclopaedias, trashy urban fantasy, and second rate witchcraft TV. And it’s use here let’s the quality and imagination of the rest of the book down.

Mason. Ugh!

I think that’s about as rude as I will get on this book though. ‘Cause the rest of the book is gorgeous. And if I am feeling charitable, I guess … I guess you could say that for a game designed to emulate that sort of 90s urban fantasy fiction, it’s at least … appropriate … I suppose.

Anyhow, rant over, let’s look at the content of chapter one. We get a little intro from the changing, Ygraine Green, depicted in one of the lovely portraits that litter this book. Then there is a handy list of the sort of people who are Liminals, though who stand on the boundary between mundane and Hidden worlds, the sort of people your character will be. This list includes werewolves but no vampires (though vampires do exist in this world). The usual “What is roleplaying?” Section includes a dice turn of phrase about the GM:

there is one distinguished player, the Game Master

This firmly classes the GM as a player, which I strongly agree with. A very short note on dice suggests the mechanics are close to Traveller, the example says roll 2d6 and add for a total. But it’s also suggests it might be more than two dice sometimes.

There’s another monologue from a former police officer which illustrates the matter-of-factness which which Liminals regard the Hidden World. Then some facts for us players: magic, vampires, werewolves, the fae, and ghosts are real in this world. Though firmly set in Britain, “the myths and beings of the world of Liminal are often international in origin, sometimes due to the metaphorical (rather than literal) ghost of the British Empire.” There are “factions” organising the activities of magicians, vampires etc, and at least two mundane factions “in the know”, one in the church (which interestingly works across both Protestant and catholic branches) and one in the police. Most mundanes dinky think to looks for signs of the supernatural, but they are easy enough to find if you do choose to look for them.

Then there is a summary of the other chapters in the book. The next chapter deals with character creation, the third is about forming the characters into a crew (will I find I prefer doing it the other way round I wonder?). The rules are in chapter four and magic in five. Chapter six describes the various factions in more detail, seven is a bit of a gazetteer. GM advice is in chapter eight, and chapter nine is a “bestiary”. There are two adventures in the last chaper. Called “cases” they reveal the influence of PC Peter Grant, and the police procedural in general, on the game.

And indeed, over the page, the Grant series tops the list of “Inspirational Media”. Others include Neverwhere, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Hellblazer, Being Human, and Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales. I am slightly disappointed not to see some classics of children’s fiction, Alan Garner’s books, including The Owl Service, and American author Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, in the list. A somewhat less disappointing omission, or less surprising at least, because hardly anyone listens to the radio nowadays it seems, is the excellent BBC Radio 4 series Pilgrim, by Sebastian Baczkiewicz. Cursed to eternal life by the fairy king, the pilgrim, William Palmer is a true Liminal, walking the boundaries of the mundane and Hidden worlds. I might see how easy he is to create when I read chapter two.

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Year Zero Engine attributes and skills

Apropos of nothing in particular, definitely not thinking about a Year Zero hack 😉 I am looking at the slight differences between attributes and skills in the across the range of Year Zero games. There are few, but not insignificant changes in the Attributes. While you might expect differences across genres, I was at first surprised to see differences among the Mutant games, that not only share the post-apocalyptic genre, but also take place in the same world.

In the first, Mutant: Year Zero the four attributes are Strength, Agility, Wits and Empathy. But in the sequel, Genlab Alpha, Empathy is related by Instinct. And in Mutant: Mechatron, the characters have four entirely different attributes: Servos; Stability; Processor and Network.

I have never run or played any of the Mutant games, and I only own two: Year Zero and Genlab Alpha, so I wonder how much it changes things when you mix more than one Mutant ruleset in a campaign, which surely must be a tempting thing for GMs. It seems rich with possibility, having a group of PCs that are radically different.

While we are looking at those games, it worth noting that some of the skill names are different. And while in some cases, these differences might just be cosmetic, better reflecting the theme of the game (So, for example Assault in Mechatron may not be different, really, to Fight in Zero and Alpha), some might have more mechanical connotations. Not having the rules to Mechatron, I can’t be sure how different Overload is to Endure for example.

The game that introduced me to the Year Zero system was Coriolis. And, though it shares attributes with its predecessor, Mutant Year Zero, it’s distribution of skills is very different. In the civilisation of the far future, pure physical strength has apparently less value, and adds dice to just two skills, force and melee combat. Wits on the other hand contributes to six skills, including Medicurgy, the equivalent to Heal in the other games, but no longer paired with the Empathy attribute. That’s said Empathy does replace Heal with two new skills: Culture which is analogous of the wits based “Know…” skills of Mutant; and Mystic Powers, which opens up a number of supernatural Talents. Agility replaces Move with Dexterity, Sneak with Infiltration and Shoot with Ranged Combat. It also adds Pilot to the skills list.

Tales from the Loop (and it’s sequel, Things from the Flood) shakes up the attributes. Broadly speaking, in the other games there are two physical attributes and two mental attributes. Effectively Loop gives us just one physical attribute, Body, and three skills associated with it, Sneak, Force and Move. You’ll recognise that sneak in the other games is an Agility based skill. There’s no fighting in Loop. And in Flood fighting is covered by the Force skill.

The other three attributes in these two games are Tech, Heart and Mind. (It’s a small thing to point out, but in all the other games, the Heart analogue, Empathy, is listed last of the four, here it’s third. Is that only because Heart(s) and Mind(s) is the order of a phrase in English?) All three are mental/emotional rather than physical, and Tech is really a second Mind attribute, with setting specific mental skills: Tinker; Programme and Calculate.

Now this is not a review of those games, but I do question the names of some of these skills. Calculate for example, is analogous to the Know… or Culture skill in the other games not, as you might think, a calculation skill. That’s said, if it were, it would be somewhat redundant, covered by programming. The name of the mind skill, Comprehend, would in fact be a better name for Calculate. Comprehend is a hangover from Year Zero, but in this interaction it would be better called Research.

Anyway, what I like about the attributes and skills in Loop and Flood is that it gives Year Zero Engine hackers implicit permission of be really imaginative in their games.

Forbidden Lands, the most recent genre addition to the Year Zero Engine stable day offers sixteen skills, like Coriolis. But unlike that game, it distributes them across the four attributes. Force becomes Might, Fighting becomes Melee and Strength gets a new skill, Crafting. Part of me struggles with this. I feel Craft should be a more dexterous skill than brute force, but I guess, in the medieval milieu the strength of the blacksmith is the more common craft.

Agility’s fourth skill is Sleight of Hand. Wits adds Insight, which arguably is similar to Sense Emotion, an Empathy skill in the Mutant games. The Empathy based skills in Forbidden Lands include Performance and Animal Handling.

So, with more skills to spend build points on, do Forbidden Lands Characters get more points than other games? In Zero, players get 14 points for attributes and 10 for skills. Age becomes a factor in Alpha, players get between 13 and 15 points to spend on Attributes and 8 to 12 on skills. Its the same in Lands, despite having more skills to chose from. And Coriolis which also has sixteen rather than twelve skills, has the same allowance too.

The crew

People listening to our most recent Coriolis Actual Play may have picked up on a few “references” – from a start, and a bad guy, inspired by the movie The Bad Batch, through scavengers modelled after Steptoe and Son (which our American listeners may know better as Sanford and Son) to a wrecked ship absolutely and openly based on the Liberator from Blakes 7

But when it came to the creatures infesting that ruined ship, it was the Coriolis rulebook I turned to. I didn’t really find what I was looking for, but I did find some inspiration. And this is the story of how I riffed on that inspiration, fudged the details, and tested my half-formed ideas in play. 

The inspiration came from a creature that was almost what I wanted: “The darkbound are regular people that are somehow claimed by the Dark between the stars.”

Until that point, I hadn’t decided whether the creatures I wanted were native to the planet, creatures of the Darkness, or as suggested here, fellow prisoners who were somehow changed. And given that the adventure is partly about how prisoners are changed by exile, it struck me, on reading about the Darkbound, it was suddenly obvious that my creatures should be changed prisoners. The description for the darkbound seemed perfect too, looking “like a thin and twisted human, with only a few torn patches of hair left, and with burning eyes and long claws instead of fingers.”

But the real inspiration came from their mystic power. They only have one – well, arguably they have a couple but more on that later. The only power which is most actually described mechanically is NIGHT VEIL. I won’t quote it here  but in short, it is a mental attack. It does not deal out mind-point damage, but it does make it difficult to think , with a -2 modifier on roles for observation, advanced skills and initiative. Now, I didn’t actually use that attack per se, but the idea suddenly made sense of what my creatures were, how they came to be, and the nature of the AI, Qadim, and the ship itself. 

Fans of Blake’s 7 may remember the ship’s computer, Zen.  When I started planning my adventure, I imagined an advanced AI like Zen, having been ripped out of its ship, enlisting the PCs to get him fitted back back in. The Darkbound’s mystic power unlocked a deluge of different, better, ideas. 

What if the relationship between Qadim and the ship was more complex? What if Qadim was the rational thinking part of the ship, the ego? And when it was ripped out what was left behind was the id, the instinctive, feeling part? What if both parts of the ship were damaged by the separation? Qadim can calculate and communicate but it can’t really understand the humans it works with because it has to fake empathy.  I’m going to say it’s autistic, while recognising that’s a massive oversimplification of a complex condition. 

Meanwhile, the ship, which Dave called Starsinger, but I am going to call Siren, can feel, and emote, it can run subroutines, and try to repair itself but it can’t really communicate. It moans, it sings it’s despair.  And it’s that which makes it difficult to think. It’s not a mystic attack at all – the longer you spend in the ship, the closer you get to where Qadim had been ripped out, the harder it becomes to make a wits roll. Mechanically I ran this as a -2 penalty to any wits based skill roll when they were in the chamber which is equivalent to the bridge (but I think I’d recommend doing it slightly differently in future). 

So these creatures are not the perpetrators of the mind-dimming effect, but it’s victims. Previous salvagers who spent too long in the vessel, and literally lost their wits. It’s more than that though, they have been transformed in other ways by prolonged exposure to the song of the Siren. They have become automata, part of the ship’s systems. I wanted the alien technology to feel properly alien, unknowable. I wanted it to be composed of strange sealed units that would be absolutely baffling to my engineer. So I imagined these creatures bodies were so changed by the influence of the Siren, long longer eating, sustained only by the song, that they are almost etherial, they can reach into the strange machinery of the ship to maintain and operate it.

They also needed to be a threat to the PCs though, and I had stolen their only mystic power to use as a more general effect. Well, I say it is their only power, and if you look at their stat-block, it is the only one listed. But the description mentions a couple of others, they “move incredibly fast, closing in on their victims in the blink of an eye to sink their claws into them.” And “Just the touch of a dark-bound can paralyze someone completely.” So I treated their touch like a paralysing poison, activating it not on “just the touch”, but when they actually do damage to a PC. 

I didn’t want them to be too aggressive though, so I wanted some sort of trigger for an attack. Thinking back to the separation of Qadim’s ego from the Siren’s id, I decided that they would only attack when a PC would try to reason with them, talk to them, so unused were they to communicating in anything other than the raw emotion of The Siren. I liked the idea that they might now be integral to the operation of the ship, and that, if they manage to get off planet in the Siren, the PCs would have to put up with them scuttling around and also remember not to talk whenever they were nearby. 

So I was done. However testing them in the play, I decided that, for our ill- equipped adventurers, the paralysis power could be … not dangerous, exactly, but not fun. Combined with their natural speed I saw that it could easily create a situation where the whole party was paralysed, and though they might not be dead (why would the creatures kill them if they were quiet) it might be a very frustrating experience. And the scenario was already frustrating enough. So I am thinking instead about a mystic power which, for the cost of a darkness point, allows them to ignore the effects of PC armour (and maybe, for another DP, makes it easy for them to inflict unarmed crits). 

Finally I needed a name, because I feel these creatures are now quite different from the Darkbound that inspired them. I have called them Aabdel’rd, a corruption of an Arabic word that means, simply, crew. 

Democracy in Action

A few weeks ago after episode 2.6 we ran a poll (or three) on whether we should play (and record) Coriolis or Forbidden Lands. We don’t play on line, and we don’t get together often, less than once a month, to play around a table. Given that we have traditionally taken turns GMing, it means that we might only play a couple of sessions on each game a year. Dave is running Symbaroum, Tony runs L5R, Andy, Savage World of Solomon Kane, so this poll has been about what I run. We are all enjoying both games, so this is a real quandary.

So, we asked our listeners. I put a poll on Facebook, Twitter and G+. It’s interesting to see how differently each “constituency” (users of each social platform reacted).

I put the poll on all three platforms in the same day. People responded quickly to the ones on Twitter and G+, less quickly to Facebook. I automatically shared my poll post on G+ with the Coriolis and Forbidden Lands groups, but I didn’t think to do that at first on Facebook. When I noticed how low the response rate was on Facebook, I shared it with each game’s group and the respondents came – in the end Facebook returned the most answers.

Twitter responses started well, outpacing Facebook on the first day, but in the end returned the fewest responses. You can set how long the poll lasts on Twitter and Facebook. For Twitter I thought it wouldn’t not last long, and set it for three days. I might as well have set it for one day though, given the nature of Twitter, most responded on the first day, I might have got a couple more on day two. Nothing in three.

As you can see nine people voted Forbidden Lands, six Coriolis. A win for Forbidden Lands it seems. But Twitter is our smallest constituency. Let look the next largest. G+ doesn’t let you set a time for polls. To end it, you just delete the post. Which isn’t very satisfactory – people can’t check if I am telling the truth about what the vote was. I would write to Google to tell them to fix it, if they weren’t shuttering the whole thing. Anyhow, the G+ poll lasted over a week. And saw the scales tipping one way, and then the other before:

The G+ poll was the last to close, and before I finally deleted the post I took this screen grab. Thirty two votes for each game. The G+ constituency was just as divided as we were.

And so we turn to Facebook. I already mentioned that, in the end, the Facebook constituency returned the most votes, enough to tilt the scales back in the Coriolis direction, or was Facebook too more balanced?

97 votes, and another small but clear majority for Forbidden Lands.

So Forbidden Lands is the clear winner. It’s also interesting to note that the Forbidden Lands AP episode that we released a month or two ago, are already becoming out most popular downloads. Session Zero, for example, is already our sixth most downloaded episode ever. So the next game I will run in the new year will be Forbidden Lands. We won’t forget Coriolis though, in fact the next AP to be released will be our Coriolis adventure Song to the Siren, which we recorded back in November, just as soon as I get round to editing it.

So in conclusion: this is what we are expecting to put out over the next few weeks

  • This week: The fifth and final episode of our current Symbaroum adventure Troubled Spirits
  • Next week: Episode 2.7 of The Coriolis Effect, with reports and interviews from Dragonmeet
  • Then: weekly releases of only our second Coriolis AP. The crew find themselves marooned on a prison planet in Song to the Siren
  • After Christmas more The Coriolis Effect, and from Dragonmeet, The Grindbone Slave Tournament

Review – Forbidden Lands

From today, Forbidden Lands can be ordered from Fria Ligan, Modiphius or DriveThru . I was a Kickstarter backer and so have had early drafts, completed PDF’s and now the physical product for a little while, so I think it is worth  publishing a review for those considering purchasing it. This is based upon experience of playing, reflection and, having the books in my hand.

Conclusion

Lets cut to the chase. This is what you really want to know. But if you want a little more detail, on how I came to these conclusions, there’s more below.

You might imagine that, as a Kickstarter Backer, and one half of the Coriolis Effect podcast, I may be predisposed to liking this game. And I am. But my expectations were high, and I have not been disappointed. Yes, obviously I would recommend this game. We played a one-off scenario, and my players wanted more. One of the starts running his own campaign on Monday.

Specifically I would recommend it for two audiences. For many around my age, the team at Free League have created the game were wishing for back when we were twelve. All the possibilities that the games of the early eighties offered us, are here finally realized. Intuitive mechanics make combat gritty and heroic, magic thrilling and even resource management entertaining and fun. For people starting out in the hobby, this is an excellent value box, that gives you everything you need (apart from dice and a pencil) to build your very own world of adventure.

Who is it not for? Well, I know somebody who hates dice pool systems, and prefers a d20. It’s not for him I guess. But even if you are wary of dice pools, let me reassure you that this one is simple, fast and fun.

The physical product

This is a boxed game, a conceit that reflects its origins. In Sweden many games RPGs are still boxed, in the way that early Dungeons and Dragons, Runequest and Traveller were. The publishers, Free league (or Fria Ligan), set out to create a modern take on the classic games that some of us remember from the early eighties. So by boxing this game, they are not just conforming to the Swedish market, but also asking the rest of the world to remember the good old days. Open the box however, and the old hands may be somewhat surprised the the quality.

In the eighties, the boxes would contain a few (maybe as few as two) stapled, softcover and slim books, plus quite a lot of air. (To be fair my D&D box also contained my first set of polyhedrals). In contrast this box is full, and heavy. Most of the weight consists of two hardback, faux-leatherbound volumes, with a tasteful dark-ages design in gold on the front. and nothing but the Free League logo (also in gold) on the back. The Player’s Handbook is burgundy red and 208 pages. The Gamemaster’s Guide has 264 pages bound in Green. each of these books also has a black ribbon bookmarker.

There is a lot of wish fulfillment in these books. Forfilling the wishes of a very niche part of the market. The staples on those early games rusted, staining the pages, and those thin softcovers were not really up to being referenced back and forth again and again by players and gamesmasters alike. I am sure that many of us who enjoyed those very first RPGs sometimes wished for a rulebook that better reflected the fantasy world we were playing in. Indeed I am sure a few people collected together their rulebooks and a few supplements and and had them bound together to make them look like the sort of tome that graced a gentleman’s library. If you didn’t have the money or the initiative to get them bound though, these are the RPG books you have been waiting for for almost four decades.

But that’s not all. If you want a book that more closely resembles the thin, stapled, softcover game books of yore, Free League has you covered. Under the hardbound volumes you will find Legends and Adventures a booklet with an alternative character generation system, and monster and legend generators. And there is even more – a folded, full colour map and a sheet of stickers. The map is double sided (though sadly with the same map on both sides) and the stickers are transparent hexes so that you can place them on the map as your party explores the Forbidden lands, and make the map your own.

This last component is the most disappointing production-wise. The printing on the stickers is a little muddy, and thus the icons and labels on them are hard to see. Also, the implication of the doublesided map is that you could run the campaign twice with two different groups, but there are not enough stickers to use both sides.

Opening the two main volumes, you’ll find a version of the map on the endsheets at the front and back. These are black and white, clear and beautiful and they almost make you wish that the the main map was black and white too. Which brings me to the illustrations. In creating their modern but retro game, Free League were inspired by the black and white drawings of Nils Gulliksson, who illustrated the first Swedish language RPG, a Runequest clone called Drakar och Demoner. Indeed most of the illustations are classics from the early days of Swedish gaming, complimented with newly commissioned pieces from the same artist. These have a certain beauty which younger gamers might find difficult to fully comprehend, especially when compared with the exquisite full-colour work of Martin Grip in Free League’s other fantasy game, Symbaroum.* There is certainly a degree of nostalgia in their appeal.

Playing the game

The heart of the system will be familiar with players of Mutant: Year Zero; Coriolis; and Tales from the Loop. Of the three, its closest to MY0. Which is entirely appropriate because it is a game of survival, in a fantasy world that has had its own apocalypse of sorts. Like that game, it is best played with enough dice of three different colours. There is a custom set available (more on that in another post) but MY0 veterans can play with those, and lets face it d6 are not something most gamers are short of. Most rolls are made by pooling a number of “base” d6 for your attribute, with a number for your skill and maybe one or two for your gear, and rolling. All you need to succeed is one six (which is marked with crossed swords on the custom dice) to succeed, but more successes improve the effect of your action – more damage in a fight, for example. If you fail, or if you want more successes, you can “push” the dice, rolling again. But the cost of this can be harsh – you can not re-roll any base dice or gear dice which came up one. And these, plus any more ones you roll on your base or gear dice, will do you, or your gear, damage.

This version of the dice pool might seem complicated at first, to those who have come from Coriolis or Tales from the Loop, but you soon get the hang of it, and it creates a wonderfully nuanced and narrative flow to the game.

Unlike MY0 or its sister games, Forbidden Lands also uses d8, d10, and d12, mostly for magical artefacts, but I particularly like the Pride mechanic, which enables a player to name one thing they are very good at. Once per game session, when a player has failed a vital role even after pushing their dice, if they can explain how their pride applies, they get to roll the d12. This has a greater than 50% chance of turning your failure into success, and not just one, but up to four success, which could mean a critical effect. The catch is, if you roll 1-5, your pride was obviously a false one. You strike it from your character sheet and must play a whole session before you can pick something to replace it.

Its a tough combat system, your strength attribute is your “hit points”, and only the most exceptional character will ever have as many as six. Given even a glancing blow from a heavy axe can deal three, your players will find combat short, gritty, exciting, and something to be avoided. A quarter day’s rest will restore all your attributes, but if you are broken in combat, you also take a critical hit, for the possibility of permanent damage, a slow death or, if you are lucky, a quick one. My advice to players is hit first, hit hard, wear armour, and take up archery.

Character generation is speedy and fun, especially if you use the random system found in the Legends and Adventurers booklet. If you do though, note that unfortunately a number of talents are named in that booklet that don’t appear in the Players Handbook. In Horseback Archer becomes Horseback Fighter, and we had to replace Scrounger with Quartermaster. I guess the talents named were in an earlier draft. If random generation isn’t your thing, then there is a simple point-buy alternative. One feature I particularly like is that you can start out, young, adult, or old (unless you are an elf – elves are ageless). As you get older you loose attribute points but gain skills and talents. Talents I should say, are specialisms and abilities that turn your relatively broad skill set into a very individual character.

I am generally not a fan of magic systems based on lists of pre-defined spells, but that said recognize the difficulties of creating more freeform RPG magic systems, especially in regards to spotlight  balance in games where not everyone is a magic user. This is spell list based but flexible in the casting. Players should learn quickly though that magic is risky – a couple of unlucky rolls can see you cast into a terrible hell with no hope of return – as a PC at least. The risk can be mitigated with preparation though, taking time to write your spells down and gather ingredients.

Which brings me onto a key philosophy in the game. This system makes resource management easy and fun to play. By breaking activities down in quarter days, by using simple mechanics like resource dice for ammunition, food and water, and a carrying capacity defined by lines in your gear list the system neatly abstracts and gamifies the more simulationist tendencies of (what we used to call) wilderness campaigns. We’ve played a couple of adventures so far and my players have enjoyed the scavenging for roots to supplement their food supplies. The resource management has not got in the way or story, indeed its has informed  the narrative.

There is one resource that you can only get through failure. When you push your dice and take damage (or wear for your gear) on ones, you also earn willpower points. Willpower powers magic spells and a good number of talents. There has been some debate about this mechanic. Some people are unhappy that only physical strain earns you the power to do spells (players start with no willpower and can only store up to ten points), or they can’t see a connection between taking damage and gaining resolve. It may not lend itself to immersion, but I like the way it builds the narrative beats – your triumphs are all the sweeter after failure, after all.

The World

Part of me wishes the setting was a humanocentric one, like Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones or The First Law books, but this is a retro game, and so of course there are not just humans, but Elves, Half-Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Orcs, Goblins and (less obviously retro, except perhaps to Traveller players) Wolfkin. Swedish genre author Erik Granstrom manages to give us all the nostalgic fantasy tropes our heart desires but put a subtle spin of novelty on them which makes this world strange and beautiful. Part of the strangeness is due to this world being described mostly in myth and legend, with some of the stories contradicting each other and very little (but just enough) explaining the “true” ecology. The elves in this game have a marvelous yet non-game-break-y immortality that makes them seem truly alien. Halflings and goblins have a link that is both novel and yet a reflection of the Frodo/Gollum relationship, and Dwarves build the world as much as mine it. Humans in this world are the invaders, and orcs the (by no means hapless) victims. There is just enough cliche to recognise and plenty of novelty to explore and excite the imagination.

One of the best assets of the GM’s Guide (and the Legends and Adventurers booklet) is the help it offers in world building. There are three sample “adventure sites”, none of which offer an “on the rails” story, but NPCs, motivations, and opportunities that allow your party to truely create their own adventure. On top of these sites however there are random generation tables that enable any GM, even the greenest, to confidently prepare an adventure in advance. A quick thinking GM could even create an adventure on the fly, while it is being played.

As I was ready the GM’s guide indeed, I was thinking this  might well be a perfect gift for a young and aspiring potential GM. It could be an ideal first RPG even. All you really need (apart from dice) for a world of adventure is contained in just one box.

Further Reading

If you want even more detail, check out my previous read-though of the PDFs.

* Free League and Jarnringen have merged.