Liminal Chapter 4 – Game Rules

I am sorry, this read-through is taking longer than I expected. Now however, I am laid up with my foot elevated after a really bad ankle twisting, so I have no excuse not to get on with it.

I am going to get tired of saying this, but chapter four begins with more gorgeous art:

Blows me away. Golden apples of the sun indeed*. Then we get into a core mechanic that will be familiar to Traveller grognards – 2d6+skill rating a target number that is usually eight. Thing that male it different from Traveller are your traits – potentially giving you some sort of supernatural bonus; and opposed rolls, where the target number is based on your opponent’s skill plus eight. Unskilled rolls are just 2d6, and the target number rises to ten. If you end up beating the target number by 5 (impossible if you are unskilled) you get a critical success, and there is a list of critical effects the player can choose from, including your team-mate getting an automatic success on a related action, succeeding in a way that impresses somebody, or infuriates someone, or in a way that no one notices. In combat, crits include gaining the initiative, doing extra damage, or interestingly, making yourself a target, thus protecting a crewmate from attack.

Failure isn’t just the absence of success. The GM might sayyou succeed, but taking damage, if such a thing is appropriate, or that your action succeeds but takes longer than you wanted, or attracts undue attention.

But you can avoid failure by spending will, point for point to add to your dice roll. Your will points power your magic though, so don’t spend them all. Will must also be used if you want to take actions when zero or less Endurance (effectively hit points). You can recover 1d6 points of will by invoking your drive.

In this game, I don’t think combat is really the thing, social conflict is the way I imagine most changes are made, but the combat rules seem … functional. They don’t inspire me, but I don’t think they are meant to. Things I like are the abstracted ranges, things I don’t like include target numbers to hit, based on the opponent’s athletics skill. I do like the rules for fighting mobs though, as turning innocent high street shoppers against you is exactly what some fae trickster might do. I especially like the rules for saving the lives of those shoppers in the aftermath of any conflict.

I do like the social challenges though. Unlike many systems where a decent persuade roll is more akin to mind control, this instead imposes a penalty on actions which contradict the persuader’s intentions. You can shake off that penalty at the cost of 1d6 will points, which is a potentially high cost. Maybe it’s better just to do what he fae king wants…

There are rules for experience here too, and two levels of advancement. PCs get five experience boxes. And they can check one for things like closing a case, learning something new about the hidden world, making a critical fail, or advancing the crew’s goal. When all five are checked, you can raise a skill by one, up to your skill cap, and check and advancement box. You have three of these, and when you have checked all three, you can do things like increase your skill cap by one, gain a new Trait, or get a new asset for the crew.

*https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/55687/the-song-of-wandering-aengus

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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 🙂

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.

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 clichĂ© 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.

Forbidden Lands – Artefacts, Encounters and Adventure Sites

The potential spoilers come think and fast in the last three chapters of the Gamemasters’ Guide. And so, we come to the last instalment of my “Where I Read…”

There is hardly anything I can say about the artefacts chapter without spoiling anything. Eighteen artefacts are described, potential sites of discovery suggested in each description. But the authors stress that’s its entirely up to you, where your players actually find these things. Unlike the demons in the bestiary, there is nothing randomly generated I can get excited about (Though there is a d66 table if you want to randomly decide which of the 18 artefacts your players discover). If you want to know more you’ll have to get out there, exploring the Forbidden Lands. Or volunteer to be GM.

The Encounters chapter starts with a table, cross-referencing d66 with terrain type, to provide a number between zero and 43. Zero means nothing happens, each of the other 43 encounters are subsequently described, with stats where required, or pointing you to stats elsewhere in the book. These encounters are not just wandering monsters. They could become adventure hooks. Some are repeatable, but others, once played through, couldn’t really happen to the same party twice. That’s not a problem though, if you had nots about what happened last time, and one of the NPC survived, you could continue the story, or take inspiration from the encounter but change the details, or simply re-roll. There are some intriguing references to SIMPLE, VALUABLE and PRECIOUS finds, suggesting, a random treasure table.

And indeed, in the final chapter, Adventure Sites, we discover a number of such tables, beginning on page 186. There are d66 tables for Simple, Valuable and Precious Carried Finds, and Finds in a Lair. Each lists the item, it’s value in coin, and its encumbrance. The items range from coin (the most common result – a few coppers in simple carried finds, to gold silver and copper in precious finds in the lair) to, on a roll of 66 on the precious lair table, an artefact, which explains the random artefact table in the chapter. When the encumbrance column shows a number rather that usual light, normal or heavy, that’s the number of people required to carry it. There’s a supplementary table of oddities, which modifies the items you rolled in other tables: it might be bent, burned or have bite marks in it, for example, each of which halves the value. Or it might turn out to be twice as valuable to a dwarf.

All these tables though are preceded by extensive tables for creating a random adventure site. The chapter starts off with a very important note, which applies to both the pre-written sites, and the ones you may generate.

An adventure site is not a scenario in the traditional sense. It has locations, NPCs and events – but it does not provide a pre-determined narrative for the adventurers to follow. Instead, they can interact with an adventure site in many different ways

In fact there may well be more than one narrative opportunity at each site. It’s up the players, and the GM to make the site into a narrative of their very own. Over them, the player character actions might well change sites so that when they return, other narrative opportunities are on offer.

You start off creating a new site by defining it as a village, dungeon or castle. In play this may well be prompted by what’s on the map, but if you want, for example if there are ruins marked on the map, you can roll randomly. a village is then defined by its size (population) and age, before moving on to how it’s ruled. You can roll twice on a d66 to create a bickering Rust Brother or Brutal council, for example.

Other d66 roles give the village:

  • a problem, including widespread drunkenness or Bandits;
  • a claim to fame, delicious bread or strange disappearances; and
  • an oddity like inbreeding or a Old Burial Site

Then depending on the size of the village you roll for between zero and eleven “institutions” such as inns, stables, militia etc. There are an inn generator too, with randomly rolled names like The Rumping Druid or The Singing Jar. A few more rolls provide each inn with an oddity, speciality and special guest. So you might see a singing sister serve blood soup to a secretive spellbinder (shouldn’t that be “Sorcerer”? Ed.).

Your Dungeon on the other hand can be anything between d6 and over 1,100 years old. With between d6 and 6d6+50 rooms. It could have had one of seven original uses, one of ten builders, elves to a demon (with ten motivations, vengeance to passion) or developed naturally. You can discover one of ten fates for those original builders too. It might nave have between one and three different inhabitants (or groups) from a choice of 24, and one of 36 oddities. There are seventeen different types of entrance (shades of #D&Dgate).

There is even a dungeon room generator, that allows you to create a dungeon on the fly, with treasure and traps, as the players are exploring it! (Or in advance if you prefer)

Similarly, Castles can be defined with random rolls to determine:

  • Type and size;
  • Age;
  • Original purpose;
  • Founder (and the founder’s Reputation)n
  • Condition;
  • History;
  • Inhabitants (including an “Is it really empty?” table or a “Who has moved in?” table);
  • It’s Oddity of course (gotta have an oddity); and,
  • It’s name.

But wait! We’re not done with the random generation. There are stat blocks here for typical NPC, and else where of course for other kin and followers of religious orders. But here too is the table for discovering a their occupation, defining characteristic (from eye patch to unkempt eyebrows, which on reflection doesn’t seem far enough for a “from … to” example) and a personal quirk.

Reading though the adventure sites themselves, you can imagine them being created by rolling on these tables (well maybe not for Inn names), and they demonstrate what a powerful tool set this is. Part of me really wants to run a totally emergent story, relying on dice and the imagination of the players to create the narrative. With just a little note taking after each session, a savvy GM would quickly work out when to forgo a dice roll in favour of reintroducing a NPC or developing situation from a previous adventure.

So this is the last of my posts in this “Where I read…” and I have to say, I am very excited for this game. We played an adventure already (and recorded it, so you will soon have the opportunity to hear us groking the rules), and o think we all love it. It was meant to be a one-off, to fill a gap in our schedule, but my players already want another session and are growing into their randomly generated characters.

All hail the return of the dice!

Forbidden Lands – Bestiary

At the end of this chapter there are lists of normal animals, from Bear to Crocodile, and Dog to Scorpion. I am a bit disappointed that there are not more exotic mounts – the lists include only Horse and Warhorse as obvious mounts. I hope we might get some more when the cards are published. For now though, I have let my goblin ride a wolf, and my Elf a Stag. But you don’t want to read about those. You want monsters.

Now we are getting into spoiler territory. I am going to keep my notes on Monsters to a minimum, because such creatures, their abilities, behaviours and weaknesses are things that players should discover in play.

But to begin with it’s worth talking about rules for monsters, or rather, how the rules are different for monsters. You generally can’t parry, grapple, or feint monsters, and being xxxxxxxx, they are immune to xxxx attacks (actually that last might count as a spoiler, so redacted). You can disarm and shove some monsters but you will need multiple successes to do so, depending on their strength. The key difference is that they Strength rating behaves more like traditional hit points. Unlike player-characters they don’t get less effective as they take more damage.

Although actually their melee attacks are not based on strength anyway – one of the coolest features of the bestiary is that each monster has six monster attacks. Six, so that you can choose to roll randomly, although if you prefer your monsters to be more tactically astute, you can choose which attack to you. Each attack tells you how many dice to roll, and how much damage a single success does. Extra successes each add one more point of damage.

As I said, I am going to keep most of the monsters secret from any players who might be reading. But by way of example, let’s imagine you see a huge figure with a bulls head approaching, carrying a two-handed axe. This isn’t a monster unique to the system, but a Minotaur. the creatures monster attacks range from Bull Fist (using eight base dice to deliver at least one point of damage and blunt force crits) to:

STOMPING ATTACK! The Minotaur jumps high in the air, landing hard on top of the adventurer. The victim is felled to the ground if hit. The attack is performed using twelve Base Dice and Weapon Damage 1 (blunt force).

A demon, but probably not the one you are going to meet…

My favourite monsters though are Demons, and I can tell you a little bit more without spoiling your players’ fun, because Demons are randomly generated! Five tables, each d66, with some results asking for a further random roll, means you are unlikely to meet the Demon I just created. It looks human, but when it opens its eyes or mouth it in filled with a blinding inner light (Fear attack, 9 base dice). It’s fingers are calcified into fearsome claws (7 base dice, 2 damage) but it also carries a trident. Don’t let it touch you or it could take you over (works like Rank 3 Puppeteer spell). Only music will drive it away so make sure you have perform skill.

Forbidden Lands – Kin

This is a meaty chapter, but already I find it more accessible than the earlier history. Why? Because it’s about geography. It starts with a double page spread, showing a version of the map with labels indicating the distribution of kin. We learn that there is a notional division between East and West, with most human communities in the East under the protection of the Shardmaiden, while those in the West look towards the Rust Brothers and Zytera. We learn indeed that the Shardmaiden, Rust and Heme are more vital to everyday life, and that Wyrm, Wail, Flow and Clay are regarded as “the old gods”.

The traditional Congregation of the Serpent can be found everywhere, but often keeps its head down so as to not challenge the newer faiths.

Alderlanders, Aislanders and Aslenes are lumped together with half-elves (both Frailers and Elvenspring) and the Misgrown as “Humans” in this chapter. Each culture though gets a summary of its origins, history, aesthetics and attitudes and a “typical” stat-block.

So if half elves count as human, the elves themselves must be pretty homogenised, right? No so, even other kin recognise there are two types: Stillelves – normally those who have lived a long time, and now spend years “lying under an oak tree to observe the changing seasons of the year or the slow withering of a rock”; and The Unruly – more active elves which the authors hope players will choose to be, because they haven’t written any mechanics for watching rocks erode. But within the Stillelves and The Unruly there are other groupings of elfkin, druids of The Golden Bough; observant Melders and violent and arrogant Redrunners.

The Stillelves lovingly tolerate this rage, saying that all elves tend to go through a few centuries as Unruly while they are young. Wisdom comes with age.

Which somewhat contradicts the Players’ Handbook where, on page 31 it says “Elves don’t age in the normal sense of the word. Technically, they all count as adult.” Reading that book, I had thought that all elves appeared when the red star dropped its rubies on the world, and the only “young” they had were half-elves. This chapter does reveal though, a method by which a Stillelf might be broken apart to create more new elves. It’s important to note that elves are not the elegant pointy eared bodies we see, but the ruby crystals they have for hearts. Stillelves may choose to meld they hearts with trees to become ents. Or just hang around as rubies in a temple chatting (silently) with each other. It’s said that even if their body is totally destroyed, the ruby can grow a new one.

There is an interesting thread running through these cultures that reveal an awareness of the cosmos. The Elves understand the Redrunner as s shooting star or comet, the Dwarves understand the Earth as a sphere, and the sun as the nearest star. When they have built the earth big enough to reach the sun, they expect to reach beyond that to the more distant “hearths”.

They do not think of themselves as miners as we imagine them, quarrying stone with which to build, but creators of stone. And given some of the spells in the Players Handbook it seems likely that they are. For the first time we hear of “massive ruins across the Forbidden Lands, seemingly useless constructions the dwarves claim are the foundation for the next layer of the world.”

The Dwarves are organised into clans, who argue with each other about “how to perform their great work and where they will be seated at the god’s table in the next world and the next.” The Beldarrians consider themselves the royal clan, and the Meromannians the ones who have most conflict with humans. The Canides or Iron Hounds though are the ones who someday most time on the surface world, and are darker skinned that their very pales cousins. They fought alongside the Meromannians when the humans invaded. I the impromptu game I ran at the weekend, I gave Andy’s goblin rider a Canide Warhound. I see I shall have to fix that in the next session. The final clan named are the reclusive Crombes. There is also a mention of Dwelvers, who Dwarves regard as their forefathers.

Ogres are the dependents of dwarf/human half breeds, and very much a law unto themselves:

Ogres love their freedom and celebrate life and are as erratic as they are curious. They are also brutal beasts who take whatever they want using brute strength. For entertainment, they might rip the arms of a prisoner, let him go free, and then wager stolen kegs of beer on how far the unarmed prisoner can run before bleeding to death.

However, as has been hinted at before, not all dwarf/human hybrids behave this way. Without naming them, the text refers to the Valondians who stay with the dwarves as blacksmiths and craftsmen. I begin to get how Fria Ligan works with these little unexplained mentions – perhaps the Valondians will feature in Ravens Purge.

I have a lot of love for the Orc story here, because they are slave race, righteous in their anger at how they have been treated. What I like in particular are how some of the popular (post-Tolkien) tropes of Orcs in games and media, are given reason in this imaginary society. I like their matriarchal leadership, because only one in eight Orcs are born female, and only half the males survive to adulthood. Half of those survivors, any who show fear and will not fight, are enslaved by the others. There is no dishonour in losing a fight, though winners are of course the highest ranking.

There are some contradictions. Though clans are run by the females, they do so though the most dominant male Orc. So, for example the Urhur, or purple, clan “is ruled by the self-proclaimed Emperor Hroka the First and the Greatest.” Hroka’s imperial ambitions mean this is the most outgoing, “civilised” clan. General Archa’s Roka clan are the most militaristic, but it’s the Isir clan who hate the other kin the most. The Viraga are the glue that hold the clans together. A group of female Orcs who are dedicated to increasing the knowledge and power of the Orc kin. So far, in my read-through, it’s the write up of the Orcs that has inspired the most thought of stories I might add to the campaign, or characters I might want to play. But there is a bit missing piece of the Orc story – do they worship gods?

The Wolfkin worship Heme, and like the Rust Bothers, were somewhat immune to the terrors of the Blood Mist, and do their is some affinity between the two groups. They are despised by pretty much everyone else, many of whom consider them to be some failed experiment of the Sorcerer Zygofer. The of course take exception to such slurs.

They despise civilization intensely and believe they have found their way back to nature and the original form of their ancestors, away from the weakening and destructive ways that caused the human kin to lose their fur and distort the land.

The marsh dwelling Saurians use crocodile as beasts of burden, and trade with the other kin for metal tools which they can not make themselves. Whiners are a sentient kin, hunted by both Orcs and humans for their “sweet meat” and for their ability to grow gold when it inserted under their skin. I think, to be honest, this just shows us how unlikeable the humans of the Forbidden Lands are. The entry on halflings and goblins teaches us very little new, except that goblins have night vision, and suffer one point of damage to agility every quarter day if daylight, which players of goblin characters might want to know.

Forbidden Lands – Gods

Are the gods of Forbidden Lands real within this world? Or are they just old stories, told and retold until they take of different meanings, different names even?

We know the icons of the Third Horizon in Coriolis are real, because if you pray to them you are rewarded with an increased chance of success. But in the Forbidden Lands, characters find the strength to succeed within themselves. That said, characters with a stronghold can gain willpower if they have a shrine…

One thing I like about the pantheon of gods described here is the idea that a number of the gods are not a pantheon at all, but rather a different understanding of, or name for, a god who may or may not exist. When things are going badly, it natural to desire, or to ascribe your survival to, a Protector God, and so it is for the humans of the Forbidden Lands. They all agree that such a god exists, but they can not agree on its naming or shape.

According to legend, he flew before the ships in the form of a raven with a snake in his claws.

The first schism is over which of these two creatures is the actual god. Was it the snake, Wyrm, carried by a holy but not divine bird? Or was it Raven, who carried the mother of snakes and words across the oceans to prepare the land for humankind?

So two human churches are pitted against one another: The Congregation of the Serpent regards the Raven Church as heretics, and their persecution of the Raven Sisters drove the first human, or Ailander, settlement in the Forbidden Lands. That migration caused the Raven church itself to split – an offshoot cult, the Reapenters or Blackwings, believe that they must rid the Forbidden Lands of humankind, by killing themselves only after they have killed every other human in Ravenland.

A more enlightened school of thought might suggest that perhaps Raven and Snake are aspects of the same divinity. As such a school does exist. However, they use different names. Believing the bird made of iron, and the snake wood, they think it is the materials themselves, not the animals that are divine, and call them Rust and Heme.

But so far we are talking only about the god(s) of humans. The kin who lived here before Wyrm (or the Raven, or Rust and Heme) led humankind here have their own gods, and the Dwarven god is Huge.

That’s his name.

The dwarves have their own creation myth, which gives them a task of building the world big enough to reach Huge’s Hearth, the sun. I note with interest that they are charged with “expanding the Earth” – note that capital E, does this suggest we are playing in some far future or aeons old version of our own planet? Theirs seems a fascinating religion, which I want to know more about. They believe in reincarnation, but also “in a parallel spirit world, where their soles rest and are trained by Huge for their next work shift in the world.” This of all the new takes on the “standard fantasy” racial types is the one that intrigued me most.

“Clay is the god who shaped the world at the Protector’s behest,” worshipped by the Elvensping, but only also by “many elves”. Which suggests that though Clay is a product of elven society (Elvenspring are half-elves from elven culture remember), some elves may have grown beyond worship. That said “all elves” honour Wail. Wail is, according to the Raven Sisters, the wife of the Raven, who carries him and all other birds through the sky. So, Wail is the wind, and weather, and Flow is the water goddess “worshipped by elves, Elvenspring, and villagers.” Maybe the elves are not as enlightened as I thought they might be.

The Nightwalker is the oldest of all the gods. “Normal people do not worship him but may seek to appease him to avoid bad luck and disaster, sometimes by blood sacrifice.” I like that, “normal people,” implying that there may well be weird psychopaths who definitely do worship him.

The final god named is Horn, brought to the Ravenland by the Aslene. Or rather, since Horn is a volcano in their homelands, they have brought the worship of him, as a god of fire.

I like this pantheon. I like it enough to wish there was a mechanic, like prayer in Coriolis, that encourages characters to demonstrate their devotion to one or more of them. But I also like the gritty, direct cost of re-rolls in this system.

You can’t have everything.

Forbidden Lands – History

Up front, I have to admit, I hate chronologies. Despite working in heritage for … wow … for a long time, I am not a fan of “this happened and then this happened”. In fact, at school I much preferred Geography to History. And I’m remembering that I have already said pretty much is same thing in one of the earliest posts on this blog. So I will shut up about that now.

Now, many of you readers will love a chronology, but I have to be honest, when I looked at the the second chapter of the Gamemaster’s Guide History, my heart sank. I knew I was in for a chronology. I did get a pleasant surprise though. The whole thing is set out in about a page and a half of text. And if you like chronology as much as me, you will be heartened by the paragraph that follows that brief summary:

The text above explains the Forbidden Lands’s history in broad strokes, enough for you as GM to run the game and understand the connection between the places and people of the Forbidden Lands.

So, you only need to read the rest of the chapter is you want more detail. Or maybe you can flip back to the chapter when you want more detail about some legend the PCs have heard, or something they come across in an adventure. If I wasn’t doing a “where I read…” I could, and would, skip the rest.

But I am. And I can’t.

It’s taken me a while to get through. I simply can’t be bothered to read it for long before finding something else to do. Chronologies aren’t written like novels you see, they don’t entice you but dangling questions in front of you that would hope will be answered later. Reading a novel, you find you self asking “why?”, reading a chronology, all you get is because.

And while I was reading, I realised there’s another problem with writing this post. How much can I reveal here without spoiling it for players?

I can say this though. There are no goodies and baddies in this story. Well, there are no goodies anyhow. Every bad thing that happens in this story can be pinned on somebody being, well, selfish. The most blameless of all the peoples in this history are the Ailanders, and their rivals for that position are the Orcs. Which should tell you everything you need to know about pretty much everyone else. No everyone though … I have only just realised that the chapter doesn’t mention the Wolfkin, at all. The only time the word is mentioned is in the short bit of introductory fiction that starts every chapter.

Round the beggar from Varassa all sat in a ring, and by the campfire they sat and heard his song. And about walkers and wolfkin and every terrible thing, and of his fear he sang to them all night long

Well, the beggar from Varassa might sing about “walkers and Wolfkin” but the authors of this chapter don’t. The omissions go both ways though. The players guide introduced us to half-elves and more about their origins in explained more here, but the history also tells us about half-Dwarfs, which are not mentioned in the players handbook. Most of these are ogres, which I guess will feature in a creatures chapter. But, there is also an enticing mention that some human-dwarf hybrids were “called Valondians and were highly regarded in the forges and workshops.” What happened to them I wonder?

I could argue that the history focuses too much on personalities, and smacks of “great men” history rather than “history from below” or psychogeography, but great men is how history has been written for centuries in the real world, so why should this be any different. Anyhow, most of the action takes place in the ninth century, and involves a good deal of allies turning against each other and the rise of a Frailer (a half -Elf of humanocentric culture) into what we might call a “Dark Lord” although, by the end of the history he is no longer a “Lord” … or even a “He”. Then comes the blood mist, and three centuries of isolation. The history reveals a fascinating aspect of the blood mist, which I dare not reveal because … spoilers.

I will reveal these three secrets however, with as little context as I can, just because I like how the words come together. If you don’t want to see them, look away now:

Soon oddly twisted beings, completely or partly from other worlds, moved throughout Harga.

and

The messenger returned with a living pig head attached to his shoulders.

and finally

When Zytera stepped in front of Alderstone’s Misgrown and half-demons for the first time, it was hailed as a horrible god.

Forbidden Lands – The Gamemaster

This has to be one of the best opening chapters to a GMs book (or nowadays, GMs section) that I have ever read. Let me tell you what I particularly like. First of all the authors take a leaf out of Powered by the Apocalypse games and set out the Principles of the Game, from the second page of the chapter. These principles are maybe not as tight as many PbtA games, maybe a little wordier, but they do try and define what makes this game different, and how the GM should make it feel different. For example the first principle is: “1. THE WORLD LIES BEFORE YOU” and the text beneath it says (among other things):

Place the large map in the middle of the table and allow the players to ponder and discuss where they want to go. Don’t steer them; instead, answer questions and inspire them.

In fact, I can’t do any harm, and I won’t spoil the game if I just share the other six principles, with some of the text that inspires me, and that should inspire you to want to play this game.

2. THE LAND IS FULL OF LEGENDS … Every monster, every artifact, every adventure site and every character of importance in campaign modules like Raven’s Purge have their own legend. All of these are available to download as player material that you can present to the players when they get to hear or read the legends in their travels…

3. THE ADVENTURERS MAKE THEIR OWN FATE … As GM this means that you have to listen to the players and build on the story of the game based on their choices and actions…

4. NOTHING IS FOR FREE … Life is hard in the Forbidden Lands. The adventurers will have to struggle for the bare necessities like food, water and a roof over their heads. Hold back on the treasures and rewards…

5. THEM THAT’S GOT SHALL LOSE

6. DEATH IS PART OF THE STORY …The rules are written so that it’s relatively easy to become Broken, but rather difficult for a player character to die… Yet, sooner or later, player characters will still die. Allow it to happen – the players need to be reminded now and then that their adventurers aren’t immortal…

7. THE END IS NEVER SET … Never decide how the story should end ahead of time.

Then, there is some really good advice for GMs particularly so because it stresses the difference between the first session and subsequent ones. The advice eases the GM into the role gently, saying things like “Don’t plan too much. Don’t devise a grand intrigue for the first session. It will emerge later. Keep an open mind.” I love this bit in particular:

Let it be tentative. During the first session, the players feel out their characters. Let it take its time. Listen more than you talk. Use random encounters to advance the story, but don’t rush. Ask questions. Make notes. See the first session as a prologue, before the real story begins.

Don’t rush, they say, you might not even get to the adventure site you chose for their first encounter. They might only have played through the random encounter they suggest your prepare “if you want.” Which is exactly how every session one should be played, no matter how extensive the session zero prep work has been. There is really good advice for handling consumables later in the chapter, that makes it clear that in this game, PCs should find mere survival a challenge. Perhaps the first session is an opportunity to this those mechanics a real test. But later on, “when the focus lies elsewhere” you should allow the characters to get hold of Food more easily.

Subsequent sessions should be built on the events on the previous one, of course. If they are still heading for the adventure site you chose previously, great. If not, give them access to another couple of Legends, so they they have a choice about what to seek out next. But most importantly:

Avoid preparing too much – the risk is that your plans may become difficult to adapt to the players’ actions. 15–30 minutes of preparation is plenty most of the time.

There is great advice on handling NPCs too, including a reminder that your players will break, but likely not kill some of their enemies, and that these survivors should return in a later context. My favourite bit of advice is not to let your player characters get to an important enemy to easily. Because we all know that if it is an important NPC, they will kill it. They suggest that , otherwise the game is quite a balanced, that you don’t need to work about an antagonist’s “challenge rating” or anything. If they players are winning conflicts too easily spend a little will power on your NPC. If they are finding the conflict too difficult, don’t spend the willpower.

Finally, the chapter finishes of with the stronghold events table. To be honest, this feels a little misplaced in this very first chapter, considering that it will take a while for the players to acquire a stronghold. But perhaps there was no-where else it could go.