Game Review: Hero System (Fifth Edition, Revised)

HeroSystem by Brandon Blackmoor

 

It’s no secret that I am, and always have been, a huge fan of Hero System (what used to be called Champions, back when it was a role-playing game rather than a collection of rules). The core game mechanics are elegant, the power construction system is flexible and functional, the skill system is playable, and the overall system is admirably scalable. You can run nearly any genre or power level using Hero System, and—for the most part—the game system is self-balancing. It permits the players to focus on the game, rather than on wasting time tweaking the rules. The rules work without getting in the way.

Perversely, the greatest weakness of Hero System is that it attracts exactly the kind of players which want to tweak the rules: the kind of players who revel in game mechanic geekery rather than in role-playing. Historically, this was the source of the majority of complaints about Hero System from people who were not themselves players. Those who did not use Hero System in their games would encounter a rule-tweaking, mechanic-fiddling, mini-maxing, minutiae-obsessed Champions player, and draw the obvious, albeit incorrect, conclusion: that this was the kind of game play that Hero System was best suited for.

This historical context is important to keep in mind when one reads Hero System: Fifth Edition, Revised, because it explains a great deal about the book—primarily its size. The original Champions games were slender, saddle-stitched tomes. When Champions 4 was published in 1989, the rules of the game were organized and clarified, and the default setting for the game was fleshed out and made so that a potential player could buy the book, become familiar with it, and begin play almost immediately. No other books were required, and this was one of the great attractions of Champions: although it could be used to run any kind of game in any genre, it came with a default setting that made the book a self-contained and playable role-playing game. At 286 pages, it was also much larger than any previous edition of the game, which gave rise to its nickname of the “Big Blue Book”. The size of Champions 4 was due in no small part to the mini-maxing rule-players who had plagued the game since its early days. Champions 4 clarified nearly all of the areas of the game system which had previously been abused by the mini-maxers, but this clarification came at the cost of additional pages. For the most part this was a good compromise, and Champions 4 was widely regarded as the best multi-genre game system ever published at that time.

Unfortunately, the 1990s were not kind to Hero Games. A serious of unfortunate business decisions, combined with the advent of collectible card games, resulted in hard times for the game publisher. Fortunately, in late 2001 Hero Games was resurrected by DOJ, Inc., a company formed by Steven S. Long and Darren Watts, among others. Long was responsible for the re-write of Hero System when Hero Games was still owned by Cybergames, and this 2002 edition of Hero System was the first book published by DOJ, Inc. dba Hero Games. The fledgling company was strapped for cash, so there were no frills: Hero System, Fifth Edition was a bare-bones, ashcan cover, hardback reference book with few illustrations. Yes, it was an ugly, ugly book, but Hero fans were happy (and lucky) that it was published at all.

It was also the largest version of Hero published to date: weighing in at nearly 400 pages (374, to be exact), Hero System, Fifth Edition made the “Big Blue Book”; look scrawny by comparison. However, this increase in the book’s girth is even more drastic when one realized that Champions 4 included 130 pages of setting material which was absent in Hero System, Fifth Edition. No longer could one simply buy the book and play it. Furthermore, the once-elegant game mechanics had become burdened with endless lists of complications and special cases, in a vain attempt to forestall abuses by the mini-maxers and rule-players. Even so, fans of the game adopted the new version of the game with a passion, and they supported the resurrected Hero Games with their time and their money. Hero Games rewarded them by publishing book after book of the best role-playing supplements ever created. From the content, to the interior artwork, to the covers of the books themselves, Hero Games created a product line which any gamer would be proud to own.

And so it was that the announcement of Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised (or “H5R”) was met with great anticipation by all Hero fans. At last, the flagship product of Hero Games would be updated with the same care and quality that had become the hallmark of Hero Games’ products. Or so we thought.

Physical Attributes

Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised is, in most respects, the worst book the new Hero Games has ever published. Not only have the flaws of the original Fifth Edition not been rectified, they’ve been made even worse. It retains the hideously ugly ashcan cover of the Fifth Edition, which pronounces to the world, “It took every resource we had to push this book out the door, and we could not afford even the simplest artwork, nor even attractive text.” This was acceptable when the reinvigorated Hero Games was a new company, desperate to get its first book on the game store shelves. Now it’s simply an embarrassment.

What’s worse is that the paper quality and printing quality are perhaps the worse I have seen in a role-playing game in the last fifteen tears. The paper is coarse, grey, lightweight, and simply repulsive to touch or look at. Each of its 592 pages (!) is an exercise in unpleasantness. The first thing anyone who opens my copy of Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised says is, “Jesus, how old is that book? And what’s it printed on, newsprint?” It is not, in fact, newsprint: the standard basis weight for newsprint is 30#, while the paper used for Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised is 45#. In comparison, the paper used for Hero System, Fifth Edition was 55#. You can definitely feel and see the difference. One minor saving grace of the repugnant paper used in Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised is that it has a slightly higher rag count than the paper used in Hero System, Fifth Edition. This is a good thing, because otherwise it wouldn’t hold up to even casual use.

Aside from the poor quality of the paper, the printing itself is visibly substandard. The “black” ink actually ranges from 30% to no more than 75% black (see photo). Between the light grey paper and the medium to dark grey ink, do not try reading Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised in anything other than very bright direct light.

The one physical attribute of the book which is not a disappointment is the binding. The book lays flat when opened, and the pages are firmly attached to the spine, and remain so even after months of regular use. This is a marked improvement over the binding of previous editions of the game, particularly Champions 4, which was notorious for having pages detach from the spine.

h5rpage160_tnContent and Organization

At 592 pages, Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised dwarfs every previous edition. With so much more content, one would expect that new sections had been added, or that many entirely new Powers had been created, but this is not the case. A few Powers and Talents have been modified from their Fifth Edition versions, but for the most part the additional 200+ pages are filled with special cases, exceptions, and other mechanical minutiae spelled out in excruciating detail. Will this prevent the game system from being abused by mini-maxers and rule-players? Of course not. What it does is make the game more difficult than ever for new players to learn. It reminds one of the Task Force Games product Star Fleet Battles, which used a game system with more exceptions than it had rules.

At first glance, the organization of the book appears to compensate somewhat for its ridiculous length. Each section has a printed tab at the margin to assist one finding one’s place (see photo). This is a nice touch, and it’s helpful. The index is also quite complete, which is a feature sadly overlooked in many role-playing games. It would have been nice if, when an entry has several page numbers listed, its primary page were distinguished from those pages which merely mention the entry, but this is a small complaint. Overall, the index is exhaustive and accurate.

This is a good thing, because the organization of the book itself leaves something to be desired. There is a section for Advantages, for example, in which each Advantage is listed alphabetically. Unfortunately, a great many Advantages are not listed in this section at all, or are listed under a name other than that of the actual Advantage. The Powers section suffers from the same lack of organization. If it weren’t for the excellent index, Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised would not be usable at all.

Character Creation

Aside from the physical and organizational flaws in this particular presentation of Hero System, Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised retains at its core what has made Hero System (and Champions before it) one of the most enduring role-playing games of all time.
Character creation is point based: each character has a number of “character points” which may be used to purchase “Characteristics” (e.g., Strength, Dexterity, Charisma), “Skills” (e.g., Disguise, Gambling), “Perks” (e.g., Contacts, Favors), “Talents” (e.g., Ambidexterity, Danger Sense), and “Powers” (e.g. Energy Blast, Flight). The number of points which may be used to build a character may be increased by adding “Disadvantages” to the character (e.g., Overconfidence, Watched By The Authorities). The number of points, the number and type of permitted Disadvantages, and the type and power level of Powers are all determined by the Game Moderator, based on the genre and setting of the specific game to be played. Guidelines for all of these values are provided, and are relatively straightforward. It actually sounds more complicated than it is, and the author has done a good job of explaining character generation with clarity and precision.

There are some wrinkles to Hero System character creation which can cost one either more or less points for the same amount of effectiveness, particularly in the realm of Characteristics, and the game does not provide explicit advice in this area. However, the modifiers and the costs for Characteristics are not complicated, and one can quickly perceive where a few points may be saved. Unlike the more egregious uses of “mini-maxing”, this simple exercise in cost-effectiveness is both straightforward and obvious, and it quickly becomes a matter of habit for experienced Hero System players.

Power Creation

With very few exceptions, it is possible to approximate any conceivable super power, magic spell, or high-tech gadget using the Hero System power mechanics. However, this unlimited flexibility comes at a cost: the most complicated part of Hero System, by far, is its power creation system. It is unlikely that a novice to the game would find it comprehensible without a great deal of trial and error. Fortunately, there are copious examples for the Powers themselves, as well as a number of example characters in the back of the book. For even more examples and ideas, one can take a look at other Hero System sourcebooks such as the excellent UNTIL Superpowers Database and the Fantasy Hero Grimoires. Another aid which makes Hero System character creation much easier is the Hero Designer 2.0 program, which is a reasonably-priced Java application (which means it will run on Windows, Linux and Mac). Hero Designer is frequently updated, and technical support provided on the Hero Games Discussion Forum is always prompt, if not always helpful. There have been several attempts to create a user-friendly character creation application for Hero System: Hero Designer is without question the best of the lot.

Conflict Resolution

Combat and skill contests in Hero System are resolved using similar systems. Combat is resolved by the attacker rolling three six-sided dice (3d6) and adding them. Generally speaking, if the attacker rolls 11 or less, the attack hits the target. The target number is adjusted up by the “Defensive Combat Value” of the target, and down for the “Offensive Combat Value” of the attacker. Combat maneuvers and circumstances may further affect the target number, but the core game mechanic is consistent for all types of combat, including mental attacks.

Skill contests are also resolved using 3d6. However, the target number of the skill is increased for each separate skill by putting more character points into that skill (either during character creation or during play, when the character is rewarded with “experience points”). As with combat, circumstances may further affect the target number.

Genre Adaptations

Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised has no default setting, but it does contain a small section which devotes a half-dozen pages of hints for each of seven major genres (e.g., superheroes, martial arts, pulp), as well as a few paragraphs for less popular genres such as post-apocalyptic games and westerns. These sections do an adequate job of conveying the general idea of how one would adapt Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised to run an actual game, but do not provide enough detail to do so. Anyone who wants to run an actual game using Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised would either have to spend significant amounts of time creating a setting, or they would need to purchase an additional sourcebook such as Hero Games’ Valdorian Age fantasy sourcebook or Gold Rush Games’ award-winning San Angelo: City Of Heroes.

Conclusion

There is no question that Hero System, Fifth Edition, Revised is an essential part of every gamer’s library. The book suffers from serious flaws in organization, editing, and presentation, but the core system is the best extant game system for role-playing, bar none. I hope, along with many other long-time fans of the game, that Hero Games will someday correct this edition’s flaws, and that Hero System, Sixth Edition will proudly take its place as the flagship of the Hero System game line. Until then, this book has a place on every gamer’s bookshelf.

 

 

Game Review: The Everlasting

Everlasting Book of the Unlivingby Ron McClung

 

The Everlasting
(Book of the Unliving, Book of the Light, Book of the Spirits, Book of the Fantastical)
From: Visionary Entertainment, Inc.
Type of Game: Foundation Book
Written by: Steven Brown

When I was first handed The Everlasting (TE) rulebooks, I honestly was not overly excited about reviewing them. The author of the game is a former writer for White Wolf Games’ World of Darkness line (WoD). I am not a huge fan of WoD and this game initially came across as a WoD-wannabe. However, after reading, I found I was wrong on many levels but also right on a few.

Everlasting Book of the LightFirst of all, this game has been out for a while. The copyright for the first book is 1994. It apparently has made a comeback because the most recent books were released in 2003 and 2004. The four core rule books are Book of the Unliving, Book of the Light, Book of the Spirits, and Book of the Fantastical. Each rule book is a stand-alone game and certain common sections are repeated throughout each book. However, new supernatural races (genos), locations, magicks and detailed backgrounds dominate each book.

Common Content

The Everlasting claims to be an interactive legend-making experience and that roleplaying TE is a “higher plane of consciousness.” This seemed a little too touchie-feelie for me. I do appreciate the “art” of roleplaying a storyline, but it is just a game. This sense that it is a more mature way to roleplay is what turned me off from WoD. In reality it is just another roleplaying game.

TE makes several attempts to differentiate itself from other roleplaying games. One new aspect is the concept of a guide. Initially, I thought it was their gamemaster, but upon reading further, I realized it was more than that. TE encourages the group to share the role of guide. Everlasting Book of the SpiritsOne person acts as the primary plot guide, while another person controls certain NPCs, and another controls combat situations. I can see the pros and cons of changing the standard dynamic of roleplaying this way. On one side, long-time GMs may not embrace this idea, and many may revert back to the standard dynamic. On the other side, multiple input could help to develop more interesting stories and adventures.

Towards the end of each book, the author delves further into the concept of legend-making and other “higher consciousness” concepts that, I feel, take it out of the realm of “just-a-game.” It encourages adding rituals to your game sessions for opening and closing ceremonies, exploring one’s “personal mythology,” achieving altered stages of consciousness through gaming and dream control. I personally have a strong objection to having these New Age concepts invade my hobby, so I will leave that to the reader to explore. It is one thing to apply it to the game universe and a totally different thing to try to apply it to real life. It is just a game!

The background for the game’s universe is rich and full of “legend-making” opportunities. TE begins in the mysterious Secret World, a supernatural world of Everlasting Book of Fantasticalinfinite dimensions overlaying our mortal world. Very few mortals are aware of it, and fewer interact with it. Supernatural creatures interact with it, while at the same time living within the mortal world. The Secret World has many “onion layers.” The onion is called the Reverie. The layers are dimensions like the mortal world, the Astral Plane, the Dreamworlds, Menagerie and the Netherworlds. At the heart of the background is the Death Knell—an event that brought on demonic terror to the many planes of the Reverie. This event threatens both the supernatural world and the mortal world. Players roleplay supernatural characters intent on stopping the evil plots of the Death Knell demons or they play the demons themselves, working towards an apocalyptic end.

Characters

In TE, players choose from supernatural beings (gentes). Each foundation book supplies several gentes. Each genos (singular of gentes) has its own factions, sub-types, cultures, magick, weaknesses, special abilities and Torments. Torment is a measure of how far along the monstrous path the character is. An example of Torment is the Ghul Torment of Degeneration representing the mental devolution and the physical deterioration of the character.

Book of the Unliving explores the world of the undead. The primary gentes are Vampires, Ghuls, and Revenants. Vampires are more like the legendary creatures than the WoD version. Ghuls are like the Lovecraftian ghouls—creatures that feed on the dead. Revenants are dead who walk the Earth in a shroud of illusion, sucking the lifeforce out of mortals. There are also two dark gentes—Dead Souls (ghosts) and Reanimates. Although dark, they are not necessarily bad guys; they are just creatures harder to roleplay in the mortal world.

In Book of the Light, the primary gentes are Angels, Daevas and Questers. Angels are your standard celestial beings. They are divided into nine distinct orders including seraphim, cherubim, and merkabah. Daevas are humans so heroic they have been granted immortality and other abilities by ancient “gods.” Questers are humans driven by some great but possibly unattainable holy quest that sustains their life, like the Quest for the Grail. Also included are Demons (fallen angels) and the Wer (werewolves), both of which can be played as protagonists or player characters.

In Book of the Spirits, there are Gargoyles (demon-like beings of good that “devour sin”), Manitous (totem animal spirits) and the Possessed (dream entities that possess and corrupt mortals). It also contains sections on Astral Spirits, Dream Spirits, Djinn, Somnomancers (wizards of the Dreamworlds) and Leviathans (Great Old Ones). This book is highly influenced by H.P. Lovecraft and Call of Cthulhu. Note that Leviathans are not protagonist races.

Book of the Fantastical contains the basic races of fantasy—dragons (yes, you can play a dragon), elves, fairies, dwarves and orcs. All are relatively self-explanatory, except perhaps the dragons. Dragons are a protagonist race by way of shape-shifting.

Character generation is very flexible. There are three methods—point-allocation, random card-draw and random dice-roll. It is character-concept-based, with a 20-question system that helps you flesh out the history, motivation and overall story of the character. It encourages strong character conception and a good knowledge of history.

Game Mechanics

The author seems to feel that game mechanics are a necessary evil, stating upfront that there are no rules, just guidelines. This point of view, I feel, is a carry-over from the WoD philosophy and may either attract or deter players.

Base System: The approach to the game system is very flexible. It supplies two simple ways of playing—dice or cards. It has an interesting approach to ability scores or Aspects, Aptitudes and Skills. In the basic dice or card system the Ability defines the number of dice rolled or cards drawn. The Aptitude or Skill subtracts from the difficulty value. This interesting balance allows the raw Ability scores to affect the situation as much as the Skills.

Magick is similar to skills in the base system. The difficulty is based on effect, target and magnitude. There are also forms of magick—spontaneous, spells, and rituals. The addition of spontaneous magick is interesting. The system encourages the players to create their own spells by turning a spontaneous effect into a permanent learned spell.

Dice: The core die is a 12-sided die, with difficulties ranging from 0 through 13. This system is similar to WoD where each die is compared to the difficulty and successes are counted. 12-sided dice are reserved for supernaturals. Mortals role 8-sided dice and mortals with supernatural powers role 10-sided dice. There are some things supernaturals can do that mortals cannot.

Cards: The card system also has two options: regular playing cards or Tarot. It works much like dice, comparing the value to a difficulty.

Combat System: The combat system is simple but surprisingly robust. While not bogging combat down with clunky details that other combat systems tend to have TE keeps it exciting. Based on a simple system of ten actions within a 12-second round, each player can take a certain number of actions. Actions are declared at the beginning of a round and cannot be changed mid-round, some tasks require multiple actions. In an attack, both attacker and defender make a roll or draw cards. The number of successes the attacker exceeds his opponent by acts as a modifier to the base damage of the weapon used. The defender gets a resistance roll/draw to resist the damage.

Conclusion

TE’s core universe and deep background are inspiring. I find the unique changes to the gaming group dynamic interesting. Although I initially approached this game with a negative view, in the end I actually like it. However, the New Age concepts and touchie-feelie aspects almost deterred me from TE. I felt it went a step too far in making roleplaying more than a game.

Overall, The Everlasting is a very good game with a solid game system(s) and deep background. I would recommend it to more mature gamers, with a short warning about certain aspects. All of the books are certainly thorough and detailed. It is an engulfing world that is amazingly deep and dynamic. The world flows with lots of room to explore amid its own mythos.

 

Game Review: Counting Zzzzs

CountingZzzzsby Michail Velichansky

 

Ever have one of those dreams that starts out perfect? You’re on a beach, lying under a palm tree—and there’s a hot lifeguard there, too! Only, the lifeguard’s wearing a pink tutu, and you’re running from something. Turn around—the lifeguard’s turned into a giant cat. You’re bleeding. You’re in a hospital. A spy turns up, face all scarred up, and takes you underwater. When you wake up, you know you shouldn’t have had that chili, and it’s all you can do to catch forty winks before the alarm goes off.

Trying to get a good night’s sleep is the premise of the original and entertaining Counting Zzzzs, a new card game from Blood & Cardstock Games. But to get any rest you need REM sleep—and that means dreams. Two to four players take turns placing “dream elements” down in front of them: people, places, things, and verbs. Two of the same kind of elements can’t be placed side-by-side, but must share a theme, such as nightmare or fantasy. Then, because a collective subconscious is at work, they play elements into another player’s dream, or play actions that affect the game by forcing themes, waking people up, and generally bending rules.

Some elements have positive values on them—dreaming of chocolate makes your sleep much better. Others, like Hell, have a negative value on them. Once enough dream elements are introduced the player wakes up and values are added up. At forty points the game is over. Otherwise, there are still a few hours before morning (signaled by the deck running out)—go back to sleep.

The cards are well designed; it’s easy to see what dreams another person has out across the table, what their nature is, etc. The elements themselves range from the common to the bizarre. The art is quite good, and bring the elements to life—particularly good are “contextual” cards which can be good or bad depending on the rest of the dream. The pictures always have a top and a bottom, like mirror images, to match the positive and negative values, and meet in the center. The concepts, too, are often clever—I personally like “White Horse/Pale Horse,” with a knight on a white steed on one side, and death on his pale horse on the other.

While the elements themselves can amuse, the real joy of the game is in their interaction. Because themes must match while element types don’t, there is often a (dream-like) narrative to the row of element cards. The best games are ones in which everyone tries to describe the progression of their dream. (The rules even say you’re expected to narrate the dream.) If people aren’t willing to get into the spirit of the game, Counting Zzzzs isn’t nearly as much fun. When they are, though, it can be a riot.

It helps that Counting Zzzzs is incredibly accessible. There are few games that I can have just as much fun playing with my mom as with my fellow geeks. It’s easy to teach, easy to play, and some obvious effort went into simplifying and focusing the experience.

As such, I only have a few minor qualms with the game. The first is the instructions manual. In a few places, the text is not quite as clear as it might have been—for example, it says you cannot start a dream for another player. It doesn’t take too much thought to realize this means you can only put a dream element into another player’s dream if they already have elements in front of them, but it would have been easier to just say so.

The same goes for action cards that force a theme—the rules say you can’t start an opponent’s dream for them, since you can’t make them fall asleep. Does that mean I can’t play “Shouldn’t Have Had That Chili,” which forces the next dream to be surreal, on an opponent without dream elements? No, I can’t, but the rules should say so clearly. Luckily there are only one or two such issues, and they are small ones. Overall, learning the game from the rules is very simple—just be sure to read them carefully.

Also, for some odd reason, the box calls the game Counting Zzzzs, and has an example card back with that name; meanwhile, the cards themselves say Counting Sheep. However, this in no way affects the gameplay, and I mention it only because it seems a strange slip in a game where so much effort has been put into the details.

Counting Zzzzs is an enjoyable, original card game. Anyone can play it, even friends who you wouldn’t normally think of as gamers of any kind. All it takes is some imagination and some humor to make Counting Zzzzs one of the most enjoyable hours you can have—while sleeping, of course.

 

Game Review: Return to the Forgotten Village

ForgottenVillageby Ron McClung

 

H.P. Lovecraft’s Dunwich: Return to the Forgotten Village
For Call of Cthulhu (Classic & d20)
Chaosium, Inc.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Dunwich sourcebook is the first of the Lovecraft Country series to be revised for use in Call of Cthulhu d20. It is a dual system book, able to be used in either Basic or d20 systems. It is basically a sourcebook describing the town of Dunwich, its surroundings, its citizens and the mysteries that lie beneath the “forgotten town” appearing in H.P. Lovecraft’s classic The Dunwich Horror. Included is source material, complete adventures that take place in and around Dunwich, and several maps.

The book opens with a Table of Contents and an Introduction explaining the book’s use and contents, followed by a comprehensive map of the Lovecraft Country in Massachusetts as well as a listing of locations on that map with a paragraph describing their significance.

The meat of the book starts with the complete text of The Dunwich Horror. If a Keeper is going to tackle a Call of Cthulhu game, it is a real good idea to read some of H.P. Lovecraft’s works, and this is a good place to start. This story is quintessential Lovecraft. It gives you a sense of context and tone to the Lovecraftian universe.

Adding considerable value to the book, each location in the story is identified by a Location Number; some people and events mentioned also have a Location Number in parentheses next to them, indicating that they are associated with that location. This is a handy system that allows for quick reference.

Following the story is a chapter entitled “Welcome to Dunwich.” It is the start of a location-by-location description of Dunwich Township. It gives a short history of the township, as well as general facts and statistics of the town, and names and notes about the town leaders’ names. Also included are climate notes, flora and fauna descriptions, a timeline of the township’s history, notes on how to get to and around in Dunwich, as well as where to stay and notes on local laws. Interestingly, also included in this are notes about the telephone “system” in Dunwich, and it ends with a complete “Village Directory” of telephone numbers. Nice flavor!

The “Welcome” chapter is then followed by the “Secrets of Dunwich.” This section is probably best not read by players or it will ruin some deep dark secrets the Keeper could use. Revealed here are the darkest secrets of the Whateley Gold and the Believers, an ancient secretive cult that founded Dunwich. There are many cool nuggets of inspiration contained in these pages.

Inside the “Secrets of Dunwich” is a section about the village itself. This includes the first of many Dunwich maps, numbered to correspond to the Location Numbers mentioned earlier. These describe the central places the players would probably go first—from the Osborn’s General Store (formerly a church) to the Dunwich Cemetery, and other important locations in the village-proper.

After extensive descriptions of the village, Western Dunwich, and the Mill Area, the next chapter is called “A Guide to Dunwich Environs.” This chapter divides the area around Dunwich into nine regions. Each region is described in painstaking detail, noting specific sites and buildings of importance as well as listing important people associated with each site. Detailed here are the relationships, specific historical significance, and political plots of the Dunwich sites, people, and things. Nothing is left untouched—not even the loneliest abandoned barn.
If that isn’t enough, the following chapter, “The Underground,” as the name suggests, delves into the caverns, tunnels, and underground waterways that lie beneath Dunwich. These are no ordinary caverns for investigators to go off spelunking in if they get bored. Inside these dark serpentine tunnels are Things in the Darkness, and other immeasurable perils including The Black Beach and The Boat Dweller. The Underground is not just one set of caverns but several. Starting with the upper caverns, investigators can potentially be lead to the windy lower caverns and even deeper into darkness and secrets untold for centuries.

The book ends with adventures. A solid one-third of the book is dedicated to adventuring in and around Dunwich, including “Return to Dunwich,” and “Earth, Sky, Soul”—a short adventure/encounter first published in the Unspeakable Oath fanzine. Also included in this section are the appendices. The first is a chronology of the events that occurred in The Dunwich Horror to be used if the Keeper wishes to put the players through that actual story. The second is an invaluable tool for Keepers, “Mysteries, Legends, & Rumors,” a series of notes divided out by region that describe just what the title suggests. This is perfect for those red-herrings, creepy tales, and things that keepers like to throw at the investigators to keep their stress levels high. The final appendices are the d20 conversions for non-player characters, creatures, and spells. Also included in the end are the handouts for the adventures and a nice fold-out map of the entire region.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Dunwich: Return to the Forgotten Village is a book of rich material for any Keeper wanting to venture into an established town in the Lovecraft Country. It is full of “nuggets,” ideas for quick adventures or long campaigns. The value in the book comes in the numerous possibilities, the ease of use for a Keeper, and the fact that it is a complete sourcebook—beginning to end—giving veteran Keepers as well as beginners a chance to get the true feel of a CoC game.

 

Game Review: Coruscant and the Core Worlds & Ultimate Alien Anthology

CoruscantandtheCoreWorldsby Ron McClung

 

Coruscant and The Core Worlds
(Star Wars Role Playing Game d20)
Wizards of the Coast

When I heard that Wizards of the Coast was doing a guide to Coruscant and the Core Worlds, I did not get overly excited. It did not excite me because I was running a game in a different region of space and I do not usually use “planetary guides” too much in my campaigns unless I design a campaign or adventure around the region they describe. However, because I wanted to support the line and WotC has surprised me in the past, I bought it. I am glad I did.

One of the best parts of the books is right in the first few pages—a very comprehensive table of contents. It is helpful to the way I gamemaster because I am usually “winging it,” so anything I can grab and look up quickly is good. The table of contents not only lists each of the 29 worlds described in the book, but also divides out the “extras” by category: New GM Characters, New Species, New Feats, New Equipment & Vehicles, New Starships, New Prestige Classes, New Creatures, and New Droids.

This book also has a lot of “extras.” Not only does it contain descriptions, histories, and specific locations for each world, but it also has feats, species, and other additions. Of all these things, the extras are mostly GM Characters. However, along with the GM characters, it only has one prestige class (the Seyugi Dervish), six feats, and the species are listed with short descriptions. As for the rest, there are eight species, a long list of specialized equipment, five starships (including the TIE/Ad Defender Prototype), a host of creatures, and four droids—all interesting and occasionally handy.

The introduction gives you advice on how to campaign in the Core Worlds and how each character class would fit in the region. It also details the Star Wars Universe era-relative information. Also included is a full color star map of the region with “zoom windows” for three regions that contain many of the worlds described within.

Starting with Coruscant, each world is given sufficient treatment with descriptions of the planet, the people, its history throughout each Star Wars era, and important locations. Of course, Coruscant is given a little more treatment than the others, including a large list of GM characters. Each world is also pictured but not mapped. Following that is a list and description of locations on the world. Each location is given between one and three paragraphs of text, generally describing it and its importance to the world. Despite the fact that the planets aren’t mapped out, there are several maps of locations throughout the books—a total of 32. Each map ranges in detail from general to very specific and can be handy if you are visiting those locations or something like them.

One of the most interesting and useful items in each section is the GM “adventure nuggets” at the end of each world description. Marked “For the GM,” a GM will find short paragraphs describing adventure ideas for that particular world. I find this most useful because most “nuggets” can be re-written for any planet, or at least any similar planet. I find myself scanning them a lot now when I am searching for new ideas in my current campaign.

Also included towards the end are the Allies and Antagonists, where all the GM characters appear. These GM characters range in level from 3 to some as high as 17. Featuring crime lords, prominent diplomats, alien mystics and anything in-between, it is a good rogues gallery for ad-hoc character generation.

The smattering of art that is in the book ranges from moderately cool to good, but it does not contain a lot. It is quite apparent when you look through the book that the authors tried to pack a lot of information into a small space, which I think is smart. It is also apparent that WotC recognizes the fact that many of these worlds were already covered in more detail elsewhere—like West End Games products—and does not want to rehash too much. However, it does cover enough for those that do not have the WEG products or access to them.

Overall, I feel like this is a much better book than similar books in the past. It does not blow me away, but it is better than I thought. I can see myself using it more than I had planned. The content is extensive, and it is a good read. Along with the planets most movie fans would be familiar with, it also covers many worlds found in the Extended Universe. I recommend this to all Star Wars gamemasters and collectors. It is not essential, but it is definitely cool to have.

 

UltimateAlienAnthologyUltimate Alien Anthology
(Star Wars Role Playing Game d20)
Wizards of the Coast

There is one scene in Star Wars that I remember most of all. Because I have always had a passion for monsters and aliens, it stuck with me. Even today, with the more defined and fluid characters in Episodes 1 and 2, nothing has struck me more than this one scene.

I am referring, of course, to the opening scenes of the Mos Eisley Cantina, the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” where you see all the myriad aliens. That blew me away at the age of eight when I first saw it. I loved it.

So, when I got into role-playing I had to have lots of aliens. When the game didn’t have enough, I would take them from some other source. Now I play Star Wars d20, and this book is a dream come true to me. 180 species to play with—every shape, size, and culture you can imagine. I was excited, to say the least, when I heard it was coming out. And when it did, I had it as fast as I could get it.

This has to be the second largest book next to the Revised Core Rulebook to be put out for Star Wars d20. At 224 pages, it details 180 races from all different sources—some old West End Games species are revisited (like the Anomid or the Kerestian) and others are brand new from Episode 2 (like the Gossam or the Muun), while some are races that have been in the Star Wars Extended Universe (EU) for a while, but have never been given form in any role playing game (like the Yuzzem).

Each species is fully fleshed out, with paragraphs on Personality, Physical Description, Homeworld, and Adventurers—notes for players that want to play that race. Also included are sample names, Age in Years, complete Species Trait lists, and Commoner Stats. However, the text is not accompanied by a drawing of the race. A group of four aliens are drawn on every other page, each labeled so as to discern which one is which. Although some would see this as a drawback, I don’t. They are drawn to relative scale and it’s much easier to get an idea of the size of each species. Each picture also has a scale in meters along the side, showing height.

And this book does not end after the last alien. The end of the book has twenty-five pages of new Prestige classes and feats. Most of these are specific to a species or type of species. An example is the Aerobat that applies to flying species only. But there are also other Prestige classes like the Telepath that any Force-using character can use. The new feats are listed in the first appendix. The second appendix expands on the Yuuzhon Vong, redefining each existing class in Vong terms.

The final interesting gem in this book is the index by homeworlds—a listing of all the worlds mentioned in the text and where they are in the book. This is very useful if a GM is trying to keep up with the multitude of planets that keep sprouting up in the Star Wars universe.
Overall, I would say this book is excellent. The art is very well done, although I do feel the interpretation of some of the aliens’ appearances are a little off. It’s a hefty volume that no gamemaster or Star Wars player should do without.

 

Game Review: Haiiii-Ya!

Haiii-Ya!by Chris Tompkins

 

There is something unabashedly entertaining about cheesy martial arts combat, and Haiiii-Ya! (published by A-I Games) manages to capture this feeling exceptionally well. Haiiii-Ya! is a hybrid of a miniatures game and a role-playing game, and can be played effectively in both formats. Either way, the result is a fast and funny game that prides itself on its own ridiculousness.

The game is most similar to a role-playing game, as players make characters and control them throughout each session. However, Haiiii-Ya! is as much about style as it is about substance, so some seemingly unimportant things can have a significant impact on your character. Your character has such traditional role-playing components as statistics, movement, and powers, but the fun comes from the non-traditional aspects. Each character must choose a “side”—Good Guy, Bad Guy, or Ronin. Each “side” has certain advantages and disadvantages. For example, a Bad Guy can summon nameless thugs at any time, but always becomes overconfident at the end of the fight and has bad luck. In addition, your character has a Signature Quote and a Signature Move. Your Signature Quote can be used to stun opponents, but can’t have more words than your Brains attribute. Similarly, your Signature Move gains a bonus to attack that’s equal to the number of words in its name, which the player must shout out when he uses it.

Though the game does have solid combat mechanics, its best feature is its sense of humor. It is designed around having quick, ridiculous battles with outrageous powers, and it embraces this fact. You will laugh when you play this game and you will enjoy it. Pick up a copy today.

 

Game Review: Showbiz Shuffle

Showbiz Shuffleby Chris Garcia

 

Every now and again, you accidentally find yourself in the perfect place for the perfect event: you find a dropped 100 dollar bill in the middle of the road, a diamond in your Campbell’s Soup, or end up in the path of a Home Run ball worth 3.81 million dollars. I had a moment like that in Philadelphia this past December, where everything lined up and I got to be present at a party where a group of game designers were showing off their first presentation: a miraculous game called Showbiz Shuffle.

I had come out from California for Philcon to be on a few panels and down a few Philly Cheesesteaks, no idea that my life would be changed by attending a party. There, the designer—the uproarious Joan Wendland—and friends who had play-tested the game sat me down and taught me the basics of Showbiz Shuffle (2-4 players): try to assemble an actor, director, and some supporters. The first thing you notice are the cards, featuring caricatures of Hollywood personalities, past and present, drawn by professional caricaturist Lar deSouza. It’s fun just to test the knowledge of those you play with to see who can name the most stars from their pictures, a game in which I am the undoubted Sunnyvale, CA champion. The cards though, aside from being pretty, also contain the essentials of the game: point values used to determine the success of a finished film, and a color-coded section which tells you the genre of films the player can appear in. Some cards, such as the Studio Favorite (which I believe is Mr. Martin Scorsese) tell you to draw a Biz card, allowing you to improve your movie, or hurt others by doing things like winning Oscars, or causing their stars to be Upstaged. The cards are classy, but how do they play?

Each turn is like taking a meeting in the classic Hollywood boardrooms of the Studio era. Who do we cast to star in our new romance picture? Who in the stable can direct a family film? What’s that Wood fellow doing casting Clint Eastwood? You keep a hand of five “Bod” cards, contract players who are potential stars, directors or supporting players. There is a Cattle Call of five more Bod cards that every player can pull from on their turn. Every turn, you can cast one Bod from the Cattle Call and two Bods from your hand into your latest opus, but they must be able to fit into the genre of film that you are making. You can also play one of your Biz cards each turn, allowing the fun to add up. You can only have one director, two Stars, and a pair of supporters in each film, which makes casting harder as there are lots of supporters, while directors are precious indeed. When you have completed the five Bods needed, you total up the points from your actors, Biz cards, and any of the little bonuses, such as playing the Classic (Kate Hepburn) with the Final Bow (Spencer Tracey), giving you +2 to your film, and write it down (though, recently we’ve been using poker chips to keep track, mostly so we have something to do with the poker chips we got for Christmas). After you have run through the cards once, the player who draws the last card plays and then every other player gets one turn to complete the movies that they have in the works. If you fail to complete a film, the points you put into it count against you, since your studio blew all that cash on casting and got nada out of it. The one with the most points wins, just like in Hollywood.

Now, the room in Philly where I ended up was a Blood and Cardstock party where they were teaching folks to play the game. As soon as I started playing, I knew all of my friends back west would want to get a piece of the action; after all, Cali is where a good Hollywood game would be most appreciated. It’s a blast, especially as folks start to screw their friends by playing Drug Problems on others stars, or sticking their films with the dreaded NC-17. The power of the game is the simplicity, the fact that you can complete a game in half an hour, and there is just enough room for movie fans to make cinema references and talk trash, which a film geek like me specializes in.

Showbiz Shuffle is the first game from Blood and Cardstock games, and they are planning an expansion deck featuring the golden age of Hollywood. You can order the original at www.blood-and-cardstock.com. Their next card game—Counting Sheep, the surreal game of dreams you play while you’re awake—will be released this fall.

All in all, a great game for anyone who loves card games or movies, and the perfect game for those of us who live in both worlds.

 

Game Review: Kill Doctor Lucky

Doctor_Luckyby Chris Tompkins

 

(click) …and remember, that for a meager $300.00 donation you get this fantastic PBS keychain. We now return you to PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery! Welcome to the J. Robert Lucky mansion, a rambling country estate seven miles north of nowhere. It is a stormy midsummer’s evening, ten seconds after midnight, and someone has just shut off the lights. You have hated Dr. Lucky for as long as you can remember and you’ve been secretly awaiting the perfect chance to do the old man in. Maybe he destroyed your dry cleaning business, maybe you think he’s the leader of the vampires, perhaps he’s the only person standing between you and the family fortune, or maybe his cat just keeps peeing in your shrubs. Whatever the reason, it’s good enough to push you over the edge and now you can’t wait to take the old bastard down. And, even though you don’t know it, everyone else in the house wants to kill him too.

Yes, boys and girls, unlike Clue, where the game starts after all of the fun is over, Cheapass Games proudly brings to the gaming masses, Origins’ Best Abstract Board Game of 1997, Kill Doctor Lucky. The name of the company is very appropriate, as the game only comes with the bare essentials, what you can’t provide yourself. That includes the map tiles (made of cardboard thinner than a cereal box); movement, failure, and weapon cards (you thought the map tiles were thin!); and the rules. The game is diceless and the pawns you have to bring to the table yourself. Having to use your own pawns makes the game different with each set of pawns you use. Got some D&D miniatures? Now the name of the game is Kill Evil LichLord Lucky. Use your Star Wars action figures and play a rousing game of Kill Doctor Jar Jar. We used hobbit pawns and Dr. Lucky was the Malevolent All-Seeing Eye and the game was Kill Doctor Tolkien.

The game itself is a breeze to play. Gameplay begins with everyone’s pawn starting out in the same room, each player having six cards in their hand. After each turn, Dr. Lucky moves to the next highest numbered room on the map. On the player’s turn you have one of two choices—Search or Do Stuff. Searching consists of moving one space, if you wish, and drawing a card from the deck. Doing Stuff consists of moving one space, or not; using a card to move Dr. Lucky or yourself; or attempting to murder Dr. Lucky. The game works on a very simple line-of-sight system where you can see anything going on in the rooms with a door to the front, behind, left, or right of you, but not diagonally. No one can attempt to kill Dr. Lucky in a room someone else can see into.

If you do (and it isn’t easy even with a mere three people) find yourself in a room with the good doctor, and no one can see you, you may attempt to murder the poor bastard. Murdering him is done simply by saying, “I’m attempting to murder Dr. Lucky,” and playing a weapon card. Weapon cards have a basic murder value, good for any room, and a specialty room murder value (i.e. the garden spade is worth two points in any room, but catch Dr. Lucky in the Rose Garden and it’s worth five points!). If you don’t have a weapon card, you can attempt to poke him in the eye, give him noogies, or use the dim-mak death touch, but these hand-to-hand attacks only have a murder value of one point each. After you make your murder attempt, the other players get the chance to play “failure” cards to stop your murder. Failure cards have a point value on them also. If the failure points are equal to or greater than the murder value, the old man lives to see another turn.

One other thing, if the old man moves into a room you are in, it automatically becomes your turn. This adds a great bit of strategy to the game. When we were playtesting it, I found that I could finagle anywhere from 3-5 turns if I had the movement cards—although, even with this extra advantage, I still couldn’t win the game.

I highly recommend Kill Doctor Lucky to all ages and genders. With a pricetag of only $7.50, you can’t afford not to try it (have you seen the price of Clue lately?). Cheapass Games also publishes an extensive variety of card, board, and computer games with cool sounding titles like Unexploded Cow and The Great Brain Robbery. There’s also an interesting looking prequel called Save Doctor Lucky that involves rescuing the doc from almost certain death on the Titanic. For more fun and frolic, check out the other offerings at www.cheapass.com and tell ’em Dr. Lucky sent you.

 

Game Review: Munchkin

Munchkinby Chris Tompkins

 

If you are like me (and unless you have a third nipple and a prehensile tail, you aren’t) you understand that collectible card games are an over-marketed, indomitable money-sink for the rich and the stupid. Yet, there is the allure of a quick, fun, multi-player card game over soda and pizza. What is the common gamer-on-a-budget to do? In this issue I will review two non-collectible card games from the genius that is Steve Jackson Games.

First up is a cute little number called Munchkin. The game boasts to capture the essence of the dungeon experience, without all of that tedious role-playing. The boast is well deserved, as it is easy to play with a smattering of rules that are meant to be open-ended and easily misinterpreted.

The fun begins with the players starting out as no-class, level one humans. The first player to become a level ten character wins. After dealing two dungeon cards and two treasure cards to each player (starting equipment), play proceeds with MunchinDuckCardthe first player “kicking in the door.” He flips the top card of the dungeon deck; if it is a monster, like the dreaded Mall Rat or the Ghoulfriends, the player must then fight it. If the player holds cards for any magic items, like the Horny Helmet or the Chainsaw of Bloody Dismemberment, his combat level increases. Winners are determined by comparing the player’s combat levels to the monster’s—highest value wins. If the player wins the fight, he gets treasure; if he loses, he “dies” and reverts to first level. At any time he can ask other players for help. Why would others want to help? Usually, bribing them with a share of the treasure works. As you can tell, there is a great deal of table talk, negotiation, and smack talking.

The genius and humor of the game come out in the cards, illustrated by John Kovalic (creator of the online comic, Dork Tower). RPGers will understand a good deal of the jokes and non-RPGers will like the game for the social aspects and fast play time. Each game lasts from twenty minutes to an hour and is for 2-6 players. Like most Steve Jackson games, the more people, the better!

 

Game Review: Chez Geek

chezgeekby Chris Tompkins

 

Chez Geek is a nifty little non-collectible card game about life with roommates. Chances are, if you’ve never rented an apartment or house with several of your closest friends, you’ve thought about it. The more rational of us understand that friends are best in small doses. Others get that house or apartment and learn quickly what the rational already knew. Remember that you can’t throw them out, they live there!

The rules are printed on one large sheet of paper, front and back. They’re easier than poker, but not as easy as blackjack. There are nine job cards and a healthy stack of other cards. Each player gets one job card, dealt face-up, and five other cards, dealt face-down. Your job card tells you your Income, how much Free Time you have, and how much Slack you need to win the game. Play proceeds as follows: you draw up to six cards, roll any dice you need to roll, call people, do stuff, and discard back down to five cards. The instant you get enough Slack to win, you win.

The cards (once again illustrated by John Kovalic) are divided into four types. There are Activity cards (everything from Mutant Olympics to Gaming Nookie); Thing cards (Booze, Cigarettes, Weed, Pricey Electronics, etc.); Person cards; and Whenever cards, which are events or dirty tricks that you can play on your roommates. You only need one die to play, a single six-sided. You’ll also need a heap of counters to represent Slack. Pennies, dice, or poker chips work well.

After drawing up to six cards, we come to the dice-rolling phase. Most commonly, you’ll be rolling for your income if you have an unsteady job like Temp or Waitstaff. You might also roll to see if your car breaks down, or if a parasitic visitor leaves. All the rolls in this phase break down to the 50/50 rule. 1-3: Bad Stuff happens (the loser in your room doesn’t leave, you have the lower income value for that turn), 4-6: Good Stuff happens (loser leaves, higher income value).

Next comes the “Calling People” phase. You can call as many people as you like in a turn, provided you have their cards in your hand. There are two types of people: those that provide Slack and those that don’t. The people who don’t provide Slack will always come over. Usually you play them on your roommates and they eat their Food, drink their Booze, smoke their Weed, disrupt their RPGs, or hog their computers. There are a few cards that allow you to get rid of annoying visitors (including Justifiable Homicide).

After you’re done attempting to get people to hang out in your room, we come to the “Free Time” phase. It is here that the amount of free time your job affords comes into play. You can play Activity cards like Sleep, getting Nookie (a crowd favorite), or playing RPGs. You can also go shopping and buy Things like a Playstation, a bong, cigarettes, beer, even Harold the Hoopty Car!

ChezGeekSamplesThere’s a strategy element to the game that still manages to be comical. On the surface, the high-paying jobs have it all compared to the folks like the Drummer and the Slacker. In one shopping trip, a Corporate Drone can, provided he has the right cards in his hand, buy five or more points of Slack. The better your job, the more Slack you need to win, but it still seems like the Corporate Drone or Tech Support guys have the game in the bag; you can, however, drag them down to your level. The Corporate Drone, for instance, has only one point of Free Time. If he announces he’s going shopping, you can cancel his action by playing a TV card, “Dude! Check out this episode of Hitler Science Theater Y2K!” He still gets a point of Slack for watching TV, but he was going to get more than that by shopping. You can send parasitic visitors to your opponent’s room to consume their Things. Of course, they can get back at you by making your cat do it’s business in your bed, or playing Moron With A Chainsaw or Car Alarm to disrupt your precious Sleep. Before the game has ended, you might even murder their live-in significant other, or have a burglar break in and steal their stuff.

The game really captures the feel of college or post-college living and it only sets you back twenty bucks. A little more if you buy the two 55-card expansion sets, Chez Geek 2: Slack Attack and Chez Geek 3: Block Party, which add more jobs, people, and activities.

If you now bask in the glow of the awesome brilliance that is Steve Jackson Games then I heartily suggest you check out his true glory at www.sjgames.com and see what you’ve been missing.