Category Archives: Reviews

OmegaZone Review

OmegaZone is a game I picked up at GenCon last year. It sat on my shelf for a while, as we are currently awash in post-apocalyptic role-playing games: Gamma World, Mutant Year Zero and the related anthropomorphic animals and robots book, Tiny Wastelands, Apocalypse World, Mutant Chronicles, Degenesis, and Dystopia Rising currently on Kickstarter. OmegaZone consists of a setting guide and deck of cards. It is not so much a full game as a toolkit meant to be run using the Fate Accelerated System. This is not called out on the exterior of the book itself, but instead on a small box in the corner of the cards. The main component seems to be the deck of cards, with the text as supplement, which I found to be a curious design choice. Normally cards are the peripheral, a value add to the game play experience.

Character generation consists of drawing a couple character definition cards and one mutation card. You are then left to build off of what you drew to fill in the details of the character and their motivations. The options here are all fairly standard fare, and nothing too outrageous or game breaking. Once you have done this, you add a High Concept and Trouble aspect to the character and you are more or less done. The cards define your approaches, so depending on what you draw, you may be wildly capable in certain areas, and completely useless in others, or have a low spread across the board. This cedes a great deal of the player’s narrative control and agency to random chance, which I do not love, but I do not see another workable approach when you are using cards for this mechanism.

Digging into the game, the setting information contained is fairly constrained, which is likely a function of needing to fit the relevant information on to a standard sized playing card, along with art and design components. The cards themselves are well made and feel nice. They certainly did not go cheap on them, which is good, because this is a concept that relies heavily on the cards and is going to live or die by them. The art is fun and fanciful, which fits the wacky feel of the game. The settings, called Locations, on the cards consist of the Location name with a one sentence description, a couple sentences on a Group that can be found in the Location, and a sentence or two on the Leader for that group. The Locations are expounded upon in the book, by which I mean you get one or two additional paragraphs about that area and the leader character found within.

For example, one Location, The Reach, is described as: “The Reach is treacherous, but riches are there for the taking.” What does that mean? It is entirely up to the GM to expound up on that one nugget to make it meaningful. The book itself does not provide any additional information as to what the author envisioned for The Reach. Is it an old technology park? A military compound? An underground bunker? That is up to you to decide, at which point you have created everything yourself anyway.

If you are looking for an out of the box setting that is ready to go, I would recommend the Mutant Year Zero zone books instead. While there are some good story seeds and interesting ideas in OmegaZone, you are left to do the heavy lifting and world building. There is a section that discusses generating your own Locations, but only to the extent you get the same three item block of information. The Mutant Year zone books, conversely, are fully fleshed out and more or less ready to go without much work from the GM. I am a big fan of presenting me with more information and letting me carve away and shape the area to my tastes. There is more to work with that way.

My major criticism of OmegaZone is that there needs to be more of just about everything. Fitting all of the mutations, items, locations, and story seeds into a single 52 card deck means not much space could be given to anything, which really narrowed what was able to be presented. This book could easily have been twice as long and likely would have benefited from it. The settings and story seeds should have been their own deck, giving more room to breathe life into the world and give the characters more options.

With so many options for post-apocalyptic games at the moment, it is difficult to recommend OmegaZone over something like Mutant Year Zero, which is far more developed, or Gamma World, which clearly inspired OmegaZone. The decision is going to depend entirely on how you feel about the cards and using them as the primary driver for the game. It does benefit from being incredibly cheap compared to the other options, with the deck usually costing $12 if you find it at a convention. A pdf of the cards can be had on Drive Thru RPG for $8, and the Setting book PDF is $10. Personally I don’t know that I will get much use out of OmegaZone, as I tend to love and collect these type of settings, and already have plenty of material to work with.

Mutant: Year Zero Review

Mutant: Year Zero is a post-apocalyptic role-playing game by Free Play League and distributed by Modiphius.  This book was recommended to me by Michael Collett from the Friday Night Roleplaying club. I am unabashed in my love of post-apocalyptic games and settings, and while the genre is incredibly popular for video games, published role playing games in this vein seem few and far between. The grandfather of these is, of course, Gamma World, which was a wonderfully weird look at life after the great mistake. Mutant: Year Zero has a darker tone.

This is a grim and unforgiving take on life among the ashes. The technology level is decidedly modern, lacking the fanciful science fiction elements common in Gamma World or Fallout. In some ways, it is even low tech, with the absence of computers and cellular communications. If you have a working vehicle that is a luxury.  You may have a gun, but you rarely want to use it, as bullets are the currency of the world and must be tracked. You also need to keep track of food, water, and your rot level if you hope to survive long. Life is hard in Mutant: Year Zero, and the game is as much resource management and base building as it is exploration and fighting.

The core of the game is rooted in the zone map. This is effectively a hex crawl, where you go in search of food, water, and supplies. There is a mechanic to randomly generate these zones within the map, which is how I first began running the game. I found this to be a shallow way to experience the world. You miss out on the detail and strangeness inherent in such a setting if you are merely rolling dice and populating an area according to tables. After the zone is generated, the players roll dice to navigate the area and the result of that roll determines what they encounter and any items they find. At early levels it is possible to roll up a death trap for the characters, and if they roll poorly in response, wipe the entire party. While this is thematically appropriate, it can be unsatisfying to be victims to the whims of fate to this degree.

In contrast, the book offers a handful of fleshed out zones for players to interact with, and these are where I think the game shines. You can take multiple approaches and handle the situation in smart ways. It encourages and rewards immersive play. I found interspersing these more crafted areas amid the randomly generated squares to be the best approach for running the game. Sadly, the core book does not give you enough of these, so it is wise to supplement with the zone books for the line, invent your own, or find zones other places. Such as, perhaps, a Zine. Like Survivalism, which is available on the Full Metal RPG patreon.

Shameless plugs aside, Mutant: Year Zero feels like it is really two games married together. There is the exploration part, where you are going out and searching for resources, and there is the Ark, your home base. At the start of each session you generate a new threat, by either rolling or drawing from a deck of cards Modiphius will happily sell you. After this is done, you undertake projects. These are things that increase the technology level, defenses, or resource generation abilities of your Ark. You can build a stable, functional society, or opt for a cannibal death cult that destroys anyone they come across.

The Ark is deeply political environment, ruled over by competing bosses and nominally overseen by the eldest, the last true human of which you know. The mind of the eldest has started to go and the future is very uncertain. Further, mutants do not survive past 30, so if a solution is not found soon, your people are doomed to extinction. The bosses are jockeying for position, and a number of the threat cards are centered around the ark, and existential threats to your scrappy society, both internal and external.

It is possible to run entire sessions either in the Ark or out in the wasteland. The flavor of each is very different. In the wasteland everyone cooperates to find resources, fight off monsters, and survive. Back in the Ark the players had a tendency to split apart and each scheme with different bosses and factions. When the end came for players in my game, it was inside the Ark, as a result of their actions or the wheels set into motion by others.

There is a story underlying all of this. I will not get into it, as I want to avoid spoilers and found it slightly underwhelming. It is not terrible, it is simply a tad predictable and uninteresting, all told. I did not use much of this material when I ran the game myself, but if meta plot is your thing, there is a meta plot here you can run with should you so desire.

The core mechanic involves rolling d6 to resolve actions. There are three types of dice needed: Attribute, Ability, and Equipment. It helps to have different colored dice for these, and Modiphius will happily sell you exorbitantly priced custom dice. 6s represent successes, and 1s are potentially bad. If you do not generate any successes, you have the option to push the role, but doing so causes the 1s rolled to have a negative effect. You either take attribute strain, or your equipment suffers damage.

The game is called mutant, and you are playing a mutant. Character creation is a point buy system, where you start by picking your role, and then assigning attributes and abilities based on that role and its special ability and talents. Mutations are randomly generated, which can make things a bit lopsided. In our play through we had several characters who rarely used their mutations, and others who used them every opportunity they had. Mutations are fueled by mutation points. Mutation points are generated when you take attribute strain, or at the start of each session if you are at 0. Using mutations forces you to roll a number of dice equal to the mutation points spent. On a roll of 1, something unexpected happens and you roll again. A further roll of 1 means you permanently lose an attribute point, but gain a new mutation. The other results have their own effect, but the two ones are effectively the death spiral that is built into the game. Once your attributes are low enough your character is no longer playable.

One final quibble is availability. Mutant: Year Zero suffers from a problem that seems all too common among the Free Play League games: Finding a copy can be an absolute chore. You can, of course, order from the publisher over in England, which can nearly doubles the cost of acquiring the game. The alternative is hunting across multiple game shops until you manage to stumble across a copy and then snatch it up like Gollum grabbing the Precious.

I like Mutant: Year Zero quite a bit. It is not as gonzo as I had initially hoped for, and the resource management and bookkeeping portions can be a bit tedious, but it is a really fun game to run and experiment with. I feel like the zone books are almost necessary to get the maximum utility out of the game, and it really could use a games master book to expand on zone building, adversary generation, creating maps, and offer a toolkit for modifying the game. It is a gritty, dark take on a genre that is often portrayed as weird and humorous. There is a lot here to like and you should pick it up if this type of game interests you. Assuming you can find it.

Review: Stormbringer 1st Edition

A few weeks ago my friend Adam Sink bought me a copy of Stormbringer first edition rulebook that he found on the shelf of a used bookstore for fifteen dollars. Knowing that I was in the midst of collecting a mammoth Stormbringer collection, he texted me, asking if I wanted him to pick it up on my behalf. I demurred, saving money for Gen Con. Adam, the sport that he is, picked it up anyway as a gift.

Any man, I sure am glad that he did.

Stormbringer is set in the world of the Young Kingdoms, the realm where the Elric portion of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion cycle of novels takes place. It deals with a failing empire in conflict with nascent powers and the fate of tragic figures driving this world into an apocalypse that has been foreseen, but which the characters are powerless to prevent.

The 144 page softcover book is actually the manual that came inside of the 1st Edition Stormbringer boxed set. This was published in 1981 by Chaosium and is written by old school roleplaying luminaries Ken St. Andre and Steve Perrin. The art for the book is wonderfully evocative and composed by Frank Brunner.

The copy Adam found for me was sans boxed set, which is why it was priced so attainably. The boxed set comes with a fold out map of Michael Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms and some other play aides, but everything you need to play the game is contained inside the covers of the manual. Additionally, I have like 4 other versions of the Stormbringer RPG so I’m up to my eyeballs in maps of the the Young Kingdoms anyway.

Now, I could get into a whole screed on the differences between this edition and any other. Some of those differences are big, some are nuanced, but they are beyond the scope of this review. My purpose here is to inspire you to go on eBay immediately and hunt up a copy of first edition Stormbringer, regardless of its condition, regardless of whether it has the box and the dice and all that crap.

But in order to go forward I have to go back a little further first. See all of this was presaged to me by none other than Sunderland’s resident wizard Jamie over a year ago via Instagram.

Jaime owns and operates Colosseum Rex in Sunderland, UK,  and I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about him here before. But In case you haven’t, I’ll catch you up. I met Jaime on Instagram back in 2014. At the time we would just talk about roleplaying games that captured our imaginations. He lived in the UK. I lived in LA. As the years have passed, Jaime has constantly challenged my perceptions of roleplaying and pushed me to explore more and be open to new ideas. As a thinker and a student of tabletop gaming he’s always about a year ahead of me. I find it incredibly vexing, but if past precedent is any kind of future predictor, whatever Jaime is up to now – will be the fad that I’m binging on in twelve to fifteen months.

One day on Insta he called out my love of the OSR movement directly. I wish I could find the quote. But his point was simply “Do we even need an OSR movement when there are so many great old games laying around, waiting to be rediscovered and played?” Of course, even after a spirited round of debate with him, I still believe that new blood exhuming old ideas and breathing new life into them is a necessary force in the roleplaying community and an objective good. I don’t think the brilliance of Diogo Nogueira’s “Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells” or James Vail’s “Xas Irkalla” would be with us if we didn’t have young blood developers looking back in order to find the way forward. But I will say that Jaime’s argument opened my mind to taking a deeper look at games that had more or less run their course by the time I was discovering the hobby in the very late 80s, early 90s.

So that brings us to Stormbringer first edition. I started reading it on a lark. There was something about the way the high weight pages of the manual felt in my hand that took me back to my teenage years when I would spend all day on the weekends or when school was not in session, draped across a couch reading a softcover Vampire manual. Seized by this nostalgia I began to read the book carefully from the inside cover, and fell in love with a brilliant and beautiful game that as far as I am concerned never got the attention or the lifespan it deserved.

Now this is the part of the review where we would usually start breaking things down into bullet points, pros and cons. I’m going to forego that tradition for this game because I don’t think that kind of binary thinking serves old school games very well. There are aspects of this game that some people will delight in, those same aspects will make others climb the walls with frustration.

I will say this as a downside: Stormbringer books are very difficult to get a hold of. In the last year since I have gotten serious about collecting them, I have noticed that their prices have risen sharply, and they were not cheap to begin with. If you are a compulsive collector of things of beauty, consider this before starting down the path of collecting Stormbringer: you cannot have just one.

You cannot have just one core book, one edition, one sourcebook. Once you have partaken of this game, you have no choice but to have them all, and some pieces will come at great cost.

So:

Character creation in Stormbringer should really be called the character lottery. It’s clear that Ken St. Andre didn’t have balance on his mind when he was writing this game. And on some level that’s fine. The Elric cycle of novels doesn’t have much to do with balance. The central protagonist of the novels is the monarchy of one of the world’s greatest empires and he spends his time in the novels chumming around with everyone from scum of the earth adventurers to merchant princes to everyone in between.

Indeed, a very small percentage of the characters in the Stormbringer game will be mind-bendingly powerful. Predominantly magic-users, they will harness the power of demons, slay anyone who dares to stand against them and carve the history of the Young Kingdoms. Everyone else will pale in comparison to their raw power. All of this is determined in the character creation phase by rolling dice. Your ‘race’ your class, your attributes are determined for you by prescribed dice roll. There are very few choices you, as the player, have any say in during this phase. Honestly, if the GM were to lay out 4 or 5 pregenerated characters before the campaign began and let the players discuss which one they wanted to play, there would be more agency and selection. A typical Stormbringer character could be generated by a computer program. Now, as I said, some players will embrace this ‘winds of fate’ style of roleplaying. Others will reject it.

The Stormbringer system is sort of weirdly math-y. It’s a classic OSR style percentile, where the higher your percentile is in something, the better you are at it, and there are incentives to roll low. If you are a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or Dark Heresy enthusiast you will recognise this game design principle.

While reading, there were times when I would marvel at the system’s simple elegance. Other times I found myself wondering why anyone would bother with this. Overall I found it to be really fun, at least on paper, I haven’t had a chance to run this thing yet. There are lots of unique subsystems dealing with fractions of percentages that at times I found kind of tedious and burdensome. But then there were subsystems that got no constraints at all like the winged men of Myrrh’s ability to fly without defined restrictions, which I thought was amazing.

Combining both the idea of subsystems and power level, a huge part of the Sorcery section of the book details systems that player characters will rarely, if ever, have the chance to use. The magic of the Elric universe is arbitrated by demons. Humans have no ability to wield magic on their own, and must impose on bound demons to borrow their power. Still, the ability to bind a demon is so rare, difficult and risky, it’s unlikely that a PC will ever get to have the experience. The rules seem like they were included largely to cover NPCs, but Ken St. Andre doesn’t tell us this straight out. He waits until the very end of the magic system and then sort of alludes to it, but I think that a lot of players in the 80s sort of glossed over his warning.

I’ve heard that there can be weird problems with this version of the game where people are binding demons to every damned thing in hopes of getting bonuses out of them, which is clearly against the intention of the book, although there are no rules prohibiting it. I guess it’s one of those classic John Wick style situations where the rules end up defining the incentives of the players.

All in all I really can’t say how much I love Stormbringer as a game, the first edition in particular. I could go on and on, but this review has already been our longest yet, so I won’t. I have some guys on deck to play and now that I’m done reading the book, I’m stoked to start the process of putting together an adventure and setting at date to journey into the Young Kingdoms.

Meanwhile,you may be saying to yourself, “yeah, that’s all well and good, but I’ve never read any of those Elric novels. Is this review even aimed at me?”

First, yes it is. And if you haven’t read Elric, get out there and do it. The original Elric cycle of novels is currently out of print in America, and it’s a shame. I recommend hitting up eBay and purchasing some of the Berkley Fantasy silver softcover editions as cheap as you can. The ones with the pictures of Elric on the cover, portrayed as a haunted and lonesome figure.

Start with book one, Elric of Melnibone. It’s a quick read and it will change the way you look at fantasy. At least that was my experience when I first read it after college, after by dear friend Ben Bailey had been on me to read the novels since the early days of high school roleplaying. I suggest that you take a look at book two as well, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate. If after reading them you don’t want to go any further, that’s cool, everyone has different tastes and you’ll get only respect from me for broadening your horizons. But check out at least the first two books, you owe it to yourself as a gamer and a game master.

Second, while a love of Moorcock and his novels make the perfect accompaniment to this game, they should not be seen as prerequisite. I would highly recommend Stormbringer 1st edition to any OSR player for it’s dark feel, it’s grit and it’s fatality. I would recommend it for it’s baroque magic system, it’s strange creatures, it’s exotic lands and it’s prevailing sense of doom.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay tried to capture what Stormbringer had already created: hopeless adventures in doomed world. But Stormbringer did it first, and I think did it better. Jaime had it right in a certain way, and I encourage my fellow OSR throat slashers to get out there and find a copy of Stormbringer 1st edition for their collections.

Review: The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods

The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods

I bought this book years ago, back when it was first released. I recall reading it at the time and not particularly liking it. I was much more a traditional gamer back then, and I found the idea of my role-playing group playing themselves in the game to be very strange, and I did not care for how incredibly rules light it was. After all, the point of games is to inhabit a character, and how could such a simple system capture the complexity of a real person I know? Prior to giving away a copy of The End of the World: Rise of the Machines, the Full Metal RPG crew decided we wanted to give the game an actual play to decide what we thought of it collectively. Being the only one with a core book, I was on deck.

First up, we need to talk about the rules a bit. There are six abilities split among the three categories: Physical, Social, and Mental. Two per category. They roughly correlate to more familiar concepts in gaming. Vitality is Strength and Endurance. Dexterity is nimbleness and the ability to work with your hands. You get the idea. You a rating from 1-5 in each ability, and that is your target number to roll equal to or under on a d6.

There are no skills, instead under each category you have an advantage and a trauma. An advantage is something related to that ability that might help you on a roll. A trauma is something that might hinder you. Sticking with the physical category, an advantage would be Distance Runner, while a trauma would be Clumsy. These add a positive or negative die, respectively.

To make a test, you start with 1d6, then you can add a positive d6 if you have a related advantage in that category, and additional d6s if you have equipment, situational advantages, or assistance. Next you have to add in negative dice if you have a related trauma, or situational disadvantages like darkness or needing to rush the job. It helps to have different colored d6s for this reason. You make your roll. Any negative dice cancel out positive dice showing that same number on a one to one basis. After doing that, if you have any positive dice that are equal to or under your ability, you pass! Any uncanceled negative dice add stress under the category you rolled against.

Each of the three ability categories has a stress track. Three levels with three boxes in each level. As those boxes are ticked off, the player comes closer to death, or insanity, or whatever terrible fate awaits them. It is called the End of the World, not Uncle Fuzzies Fun Van, which… is probably also pretty terrible.

You can trade levels of stress for additional traumas, which is the death spiral of the game. As you gain more trauma, you roll more negative dice, leading to more failed checks and more stress until you die.

Ok, enough bookkeeping. What did we think of the game? Speaking for myself, I had an absolute blast running this. It was fun and frantic, which was only amped up given that we were play testing with a two-hour time constraint. Character creation was really easy. After all, who knows you better than yourself? With our sheets in hand, we started playing.

I opted to run the scenario covering the rise of Cthulhu, That Which Cannot Die. Right away that started things off in a pretty dire situation. The game starts at the very table you are sitting it, with the very people you are sitting with. This makes determining equipment fairly easy. What is there immediately around you that might be of use? From there, the players more or less drove the narrative as they decided where to go and what to go. I only had to act as the arbiter of the current state and function of the world. I killed myself as quickly and brutally as I could, because I do not like the idea of running a GM character and it set the mood for what was to come.

Pros:
The game is fun. It is great beer and pretzels game. I could easily see running it as a darker, more somber affair. It would make a good con game, as well. You can stretch or contract the timeline as much as you need to for one shots or a longer-term game, though you do need to keep in mind that it is very lethal.

The system, which I initially did not care for, runs really well and stays out of the way. Players can argue for or against positive and negative dice on checks and it works nicely. Provided you can keep failing forward, there is never a loss of things to do. It almost works like a background system from other games. The players know what they have studied and what their strengths and weaknesses are, and provided you are all keeping each other honest it is really easy to take test and determine outcomes. There were no arguments over the rolls as went, just people deciding what to do and then doing it.

The game understands what it is about and it delivers on that understanding. This is the end of the world. There is not going to be a positive outcome. Even if you survive, you may come to envy the dead as monsters or robots or aliens ravage what is left of civilization and struggle to survive in the ruins. Our game was dark and comic. It could easily be more tragic if run slowly and built up. If the idea of playing an end of the world scenario is appealing to you, then you will find something to like in this series.

You get five scenarios to choose from. If Cthulhu is not your speed, you can try on Quetzalcoatl, Ragnarok, Revelation, or Nature rising up to destroy humanity. They each offer their own set of challenges and awful ways to die. It is not a setting book, so you need to do some lifting to fit events and suggested scenes into your game, but that is remedied easily enough.

Cons:

This is going to turn off a lot of trad gamers. The game is extremely narrative, and the players are playing themselves, so you have to cede almost all control to them. That can be a very unsettling feeling for the traditional crowd. Combined with the really light rules and grim dark nature of the game, it can be off putting to people who want to smash monsters and take their loot.

The trauma system could get too real for people who are suffering from real, deep seated traumas. It is best not to drill too deeply there and let the players decided what they comfortable with putting down and dealing with. Players can always opt to play a character instead, which would be a fine solution. Depending on the direction you are taking the game, an X card may be reasonable to have on hand.

Other Thoughts:

Wrath of the Gods is unrelentingly brutal. Unlike other games in the series where you fight aliens or zombies or robots, you cannot fight the gods. The best you can do is keep running and staying one step ahead of the mayhem. I suspect Rise of the Machines would be a game where you at least stand a change of fighting back, whereas in Wrath of Gods if you decide to fight a Star Spawn, you are probably getting ripped in half.

Ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised by this game. I had a feeling I would enjoy it more returning to it with a fresher sensibility on what gaming is and what I want out of games, and I was not disappointed. It was a really good time and I would easily run this game again. In fact, I will likely pick up a couple of the other books in the line as well for future game nights. It is fun. It runs well. It is narrative. That checks off three big boxes for me right away.

I Believe in Star Trek

I sat down to write a discussion about Star Trek’s latest television series, Discovery.

This is what came out instead. I hope that you take something from it. As a piece it’s probably a more sentimental diversion than I am usually used to making. I just want to assure you as we depart that I’m not trying to jerk you around here, I guess this was just a thought that was waiting for the right time to be written, and once it began, it could not be stopped.

Alright, so Star Trek and I go back a long ways.

It’s been my theory for a long time that my father was some kind of undercover nerd. I have these memories, very early in my life of my dad calling me over to the couch and saying, “Watch this, this is neat.” and it was the old Star Trek that was on, the one with William Shatner. I have a similar remembrance of him introducing me to Doctor Who in this way, when it was repeats of the Tom Baker stuff filling out the Sunday afternoon time-slots on PBS in the early 80s.

Now, I don’t think that my dad was a nerd like me.

I don’t imagine for a second that he thought that I was going to go off all half cocked make a religion out of it like I did. And maybe he wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic about science fiction with me if he could have seen into the future.

Later on, when I was a burgeoning adolescent carrying around role-playing books in my backpack and going to Star Trek conventions and arguing with people over which comic book artist was better, Todd McFarlane or Jim Lee (Todd McFarlane), my father would look at me with these stoic, skeptical eyes, as though I was an interloper, some strange alien that he had invited into his home. I remember him narrowing his eyes as I would walk by, this weird kid with ill fitting clothes, an affected vocabulary and brightly colored, yet esoteric priorities.

And, I mean, I get it.

My father was a man’s man. He loved the outdoors. He wore aviator sunglasses as he hiked up the sides of mountains. He collected rifles and loved to hunt and camp. He would work on cars barehanded, his sleeves rolled up exposing forearms covered in thick, coarse hair and black with motor oil. I think he saw himself as sort of a Hemingway type figure and he projected that well. It was difficult not to get caught up in his self mythology. Certainly, my mother and brothers saw him that way.

I have this memory, and it used to be crystal clear, but as I age it becomes continually more murky and indistinct. It’s of my father standing on the back porch of my childhood home, gazing silently at the horizon as the sun set, slowly smoking a pipe. As darkness fell, in the stillness of the summer night, all that you could see of him through the window was the small, burning ember.

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think it ever occurred to my father that someone would try and make a passing interest in science fiction into a way of life. To him it was just sort of a fun thing to do on a Saturday afternoon: watch an old show and think about how weird things might  be out there somewhere far, far away from here. And, I guess I could say it became sort of “our thing” over the course of my life. It was the way that he related to me, as difficult as I could be to relate to, and I am grateful to him for it.

So, throughout the 1980s, when the original Star Trek motion pictures were being released, my father would make the time to take my brother and I down to the movie theater to see them. I remember the first one, so fucking long, the only one that is really, truly, a science-fiction film, and I was just a little kid squirming around in the uncomfortable theater seat, oblivious to what was actually happening in the movie.  

I have much more clear memories of him taking my brother and I to see “The Voyage Home,” (The One With The Whales) and “The Final Frontier” (The One Where They Meet God). When “The Undiscovered Country” (The Last One with the Original Actors Where They Are All Old), came out, he called my brother and I out of school and drove us from the remote, small town that we lived in at the time, to the capitol city an hour and a half away so that we could see the film on opening day. After the movie was over he took us to a record store where bought me a Public Enemy baseball cap. This was in 1991.

Now this is one of those weird moments where there is a difference between what I remember and what the historical record suggests.

It goes a little something like this: My father hated the institution he called “commercial television.” This was any TV in which shows are sponsored by advertisers in exchange for room to project advertisements during commercial breaks. My father was some kind of strange, muddled communist-socialist in his outlook, and he detested the concept that advertisers could pay for time to indoctrinate people through the medium of television, especially his children. So in my house, growing up, we were restricted to watching commercial free, public television.

“Star Trek: The Next Generation” was immune to this stricture. My father believed that the values presented in Star Trek (atheism, wonder at the vastness of the universe, science and order overcoming adversity, post-scarcity/post-racism social structures, vague-pajama-wearing-space-communism) were worth dipping ever so briefly each week into the teeming cesspool of crass consumerism. So each week, we were allowed to break our fast of commercial TV and watch a single episode of Star Trek.

Now, I remember this as being Sunday nights. A brief scan into the historical record however, suggests that Next Generation episodes premiered on Monday nights. This was at the height of syndicated television however, and it’s entirely possible that in the late 80’s/early 90’s the people of Arizona were getting their Star Trek nearly a week late. There was no consumer grade internet then, so I don’t think that anyone noticed or cared.

It was a special thing we all did, my brothers and my dad. We would gather around the television and watch the show together. Later, as my father drove us home from school, we would all three of us talk about what had happened in recent episodes. As I remember it, as a kid approaching adolescence I began to be drawn into the saccharine interpersonal relationships of the bridge crew, but my dad always wanted us to discuss the philosophical/ethical conundrums of each episode. Or the sci-fi-time-travel-paradoxes which were, as he put it, “neat.”

After Star Trek: the Next Generation went off the air in May of 1994, the center of that tradition kind of unravelled.

Deep Space Nine was not a good show, at least not in the way that Next Generation was, and we stopped gathering to watch it regularly. I was a teen ager when the terrible Next Generation movies started coming out and I went to see them with my brother, or with my friends, and in the way of a kid, I don’t think I even asked my dad to come with me, all young a flush with the desire to grow up quickly and assume the perceived freedoms of adulthood. I don’t know if it even crossed my mind.

The last memory of watching Star Trek and my father was the premier episode of Star Trek: Voyager in 1995. Paramount, the movie company that has owned the rights to the Star Trek franchise for decades, was launching a  new broadcast television station, with a new Star Trek show as it’s flagship program. I was all revved up to watch it, because, at least back then, I got revved up pretty easily over new stuff. I recruited both my brothers to watch the debut episode with me.

We were half was through the first episode when my parents came in on a commercial break.

“Your dad has something he needs to talk to you about.” my mom says. Okay we say, this already seemed a bit weird as we didn’t do this kind of stuff in my family.

My dad then explains very quickly that he hasn’t been feeling well lately and he’s been to see the doctor. It turns out that he has some kind of brain tumor and they are gonna hafta take it out. It’s going to be a long year, he says and he’s gonna hafta go to the hospital a lot. He’s gonna have radiation therapy. All this shit is gonna be very expensive kids, so don’t expect much for Christmas.

Worst case scenario, he might die.

After this my parents leave the room. The TV was on mute for the commercial break and during this informational update, the show had started again. We turn the sound back on but watch the remainder of the episode in silence.

I remember it not being very good.

In June of 2017 my father passed away after more than a two decades of declining health.

He had gotten the tumor out, and for a brief time, seemed like a new man. But I guess the radiation treatment got botched and it slowly ate away at him. It changed him from within. He also was a fan of the drink, my father. My mom is probably going to read this so I won’t belabor the point. I’ll just say this because I think it’s true: he was a good man with a huge heart that didn’t know how to best take care of himself. He left that to other people, and his foresight couldn’t have been better, because in the end they did the very best they could by him, and better than any one person has a right to expect of another.

The father I remembered was larger than life with a cutting intellect. He was sometimes wrathful but always kind. He had a soft spot for the losers of the universe, and he was remained hopeful for them,  he was never miserly with his time or money when it came to their requests. By the end of his life my father was confined to his bed, incapable of walking or caring for himself. His memory was patchy and he spoke slowly, in a voice that was weak and often raspy.

He became so much like a ghost before he even had a chance to die, a pale facsimile of the man that came before.

I don’t really remember our last conversations very clearly, he was so far gone by the end that our talks had become strangely remedial. I can tell you this however, in the final weeks before his death, I asked him what his favorite television show was, that he had ever seen, and he looked up, and I could see in his eyes that he was taking the piss out of me, and in a voice that had become fail with age and abuse said, “Star Trek.” And he smiled.

So what’s all this have to do with Star Trek Discovery, I hear you ask. Well, not much I guess. I was going to tell you all about the riveting shit that happened this season, and all my fresh takes now that the season is over. But all that got kind of lot in the wind up I suppose.

What it comes down to is this: when Discovery premiered, I twisted my brother’s arms into watching it with me. My mom has a bigger television so we decided to watch it, weekly, as a thing at her house. When my mom caught wind of this, she decided that she should make us all dinner. So somehow, completely by accident we created this tradition of meeting at my Mom’s house on Sunday night and eating dinner together and watching Star Trek. In a way that I can’t really articulate, Star Trek, of all fucking things, healed my family. It brought us together when we were slipping apart. It put us in the same room together, breaking bread and laughing and smiling and sure, sometimes getting on each other’s nerves. Star Trek somehow manged to heal us, and to take us back to a different place, a time when we were young and happy and the future was still open before us, and undiscovered country. And for that, if nothing else, I continue to believe in Star Trek.

I don’t really know how to close this out, so I’ll leave you with these words, some of Star Trek’s most important words. They were uttered first by Shatner, then later by Stewart. If you listen, there is something in them, some spirit, some message. I think that is a message my father believed in.

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

 

Full Metal Review: Fever Swamp

Fever Swamp is a hexcrawl adventure written by Luke Gearing and published by The Melsonian Arts Council which is also responsible for the creation and distribution of “The Undercroft,” the superlative Lamentations of the Flame Princess zine.

Fever Swamp weighs in a a breezy 26 interior pages, with game info printed on both the inside front and back of it’s hardcover. I discovered this book on Kickstarter back in say, October, when I was just beginning my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign that I ran up until very recently as part of a club at my favorite local game store. That adventure was a combination of The Croaking Fane, modified from it’s DCC stat line to accommodate Scenic Dunnsmouth, a Lamentations of the Flame Princess module. Both of those supplements had swamp themes and worked together well, so the concept of a drag and drop region that I could populate them in resonated with me.

The Kickstarter funded and delivered rapidly and on time with little to-do. I had actually sort of forgotten about the game when one day package from the royal mail showed up, I wasn’t even expecting it.

Before we begin I think it’s important to define the concept of the hexcrawl. A hexcrawl is a module that presents a map laid out on hexes for the party to explore. It’s smaller than a continent or a nation, but larger than the typical “village surrounded by woods” motif that we all know. A hexcrawl is like a module in that there are lots of hooks for the party to explore and encounter, but unlike a module in that there is no story or linear plot. As our friend Diogo Nouriga reminds us, the plot will unfold as the characters take actions.

The Pros:

The book is fast to read  and easy to use. There is not an over abundance of description, so you can get right to using it, right away. The proper nouns and important aspects of each set piece are bolded for easy reference as you flip through the pages. Rather than overwhelming you with info about the specifics of the setting, each new thing is presented in a sentence or two that allows you as the GM the freedom to come up with the details of what you want to do and how you want to present the subject matter.  

There are a wide variety of things to do in the swamp, with a robust random encounter table. There are wandering undead, cultists, tribespeople and outlaw enclaves along with the shit you would expect like alligators. The tribespeople, which in lesser hands could have been portrayed in a really problematic way, instead come off as eerie and strange adding to the feeling of the setting without making you feel like a bloody handed imperialist for including them.

Riffing on the horrific undercurrent of LotFP products there are ample opportunities for post modern takes on fantasy, and plenty of room for creeping horror, all the way up until the moment when you sick a gore-splattered hellraiser statue golem or shambling mound of undead on the party. I come away from my LotFP campaign bummed that I didn’t get to run the subterranean temple in Fever Swamp because I think I prefer it to the one found in The Croaking Fane.

The Cons:

I just want it to be said that I don’t have a lot of cons for this book and my first instinct was to just give you pros and say that’s that. I’m putting these in here for the sake of well roundedness and to help you, the listener, make a more informed decision.

First, the art in this book is serviceable. I’m not down on it, I actually kind of like it. I do feel like it undercuts the ambiance of the story, though. It reads a little cartoony at times and I wish that it had been darker, a little more brutal and challenging.

Next, some of the plot points are a little tropey.  I acknowledge that I was shoehorning two other modules into the map, and the venn diagram like overlap with those modules was one of the things that drew me to Fever Swamp in the first place. That said, it has in it a lot of the same stuff that these other books do. A sunken temple to a forgotten animistic creature god, a backwater cult that worships the deity that has forsaken them, for instance. Honestly, I had wanted to use the book more heavily, but as the similarities with other source material I was using started to mount, I had to draw it down.

My last point is peevish because it’s the absolute easiest thing to change, but the naming conventions in the book were not great. Again, it’s the easiest thing to change so it’s a small gripe. But if you are just flipping pages madly, looking for an NPC to throw in and you land on one of these dudes with the not great names…well look you can’t just use them straight out of the book is all I’m saying. Who knows, you probably won’t have the same problem I did. I ended up with a traveling-roma analogue named Sloane in a moment of weakness though and I wasn’t stoked.

Overall I give Fever Swamp a 5 out of five, my highest recommendation. If you love swamps, toads, cults, southern gothic, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, go out and buy this book. You can find it for sale on Melsonia.com for 16 pounds which is like 22 bucks or thereabouts these days. 

Death Frost Doom Review

Death Frost Doom is curious book with an interesting history. This adventure launched Lamentations of the Flame Princess back in 2009. Originally written by James Raggi, it was subsequently revised by Zak Smith/Sabbath. It is a clever, unique adventure, and unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Centered around a mountain from which a nefarious cult used to operate, Death Frost Doom quickly ratchets up the tension and refuses to let up. From the moment the players set foot near the peak of the mountain, littered with grave stones and on which a petrified and frozen cabin rests, they are confronted and challenged by a relentlessly bleak dungeon. This is a harrowing adventure, and one from which it is difficult to emerge while still calling yourself a hero.

I want to avoid spoilers as much as possible, because Death Frost Doom deserves to be experienced. It is a work of art, but not some still life of flowers or prosaic rendition of people merrily strolling in the park. This is a Hieronymus Bosch painting, full of detail and color and terrible ugliness and absolutely in your face. It is designed to challenge you as a player. As a dungeon master it is plain FUN to run.

Originally designed to be system agnostic, you will need to do some lifting to port Death Frost Doom into the rule set of your choice. I ran it as an adventure for 13th Age after being thoroughly dissatisfied with Shadows of Eldolan, an adventure supplement for that game dealing with the undead. I wanted something rough. Gritty and confrontational. I found that in Death Frost Doom.

Pros:

  • The setting is grim. Dark. Bleak. You are investigating a tomb and it is a terrible and somber affair. This books oozes with darkness and despair. From the moment the players hit the grave laden landscape near the summit to their entrance into the greater tombs containing the secrets of cult at the core of the adventure, they are forced to interact with a relentlessly vile environment and the creatures responsible for its creation.
  • This is a beautifully written book. It is simply an enjoyable read. Despite being short, it is incredibly dense.  I ran it for weeks, and feel like it could have gone on longer. Ultimately, I was operating under a time constraint, but I’m satisfied by the time I spent with it. This is all the more impressive given that Death Frost Doom is digest sized and weighs in at a scant 64 pages. The authors waste very little of their limited resources.
  • The art serves the book well. The interior illustrations are great. The cover, while not a masterpiece of technical showmanship, complements the interior and highlights the frozen and bleak nature of the setting. On reading the adventure you gain a real sense of appreciation for how it was executed.
  • The story within Death Frost Doom rewards you for peeling back its layers. It is harsh and sorrowful and evil. This is not a Dungeons & Dragons style stomp the evil into the ground adventure. You get dirty. You find out things you would rather not know. Magic is bloody and terrible and awful and powerful. This cult is a real face of profane evil and not some thinly veneered bad guy that you need to confront because the story says so. There are numerous Chekhov’s Gun moments in this adventure, where an earlier scene or item is called back to in a way that imparts deeper meaning. When the party meets the sacred parasite, several things they saw and interacted with in the chapel impart additional meaning and depth to the scene. The entire chapel is just a masterpiece in slowly building horror and ratcheting up tension. You can run entire sessions just in that one room.
  • The adversaries is Death Frost Doom are grotesque and horrific in all the right ways. By the time the party enters the Tombs of Greater Repugnancies, they have encountered so much of the handiwork of these foul undead creatures that seeing them in person imparts gravitas and revulsion at witnessing their corrupted flesh. These monsters did this to themselves, and they revel in their vile debasement.
  • Value. Despite how brief this book is, you could easily use it to launch an entire campaign. For under $20 hardcover or less than $10 for a pdf you get an adventure unlike any other. It is hard to understate the utility of this book.

Cons:

  • There are some traps in the game that are decidedly Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Deadly and random. At times punitive rather than encouraging careful exploration. While that is fine for a Lamentations game, for other game systems/groups, you may need to dial these down. I label this as a con from a personal standpoint. Other people enjoy meat grinder style dungeons, but it is worth calling out so that you know what you are getting into. I personally do not like when merely touching something causes a 50% chance for each member of the party in the room to die. It is simple enough to remedy, which is ultimately what I did for my play through.
  • There is very little combat, until there is ALL the combat. The first half of the dungeon is a tense and atmospheric exploration. Then you have an encounter and all hell breaks loose. The pandemonium is great, but the tonal shift can really throw people off. The enemies are clearly a major challenge for Lamentations PCs, but you need to port them to the system of your choice and potentially dial them back if you want the players to have a fighting chance. I was running this game for new players and people familiar with more heroic systems.  Ultimately, I did weaken the enemies, like the traps, but even in that state, I received several comments about how harsh these opponents were.
  • Jokes. There are jokes in this book, and for the most part they fall flat. They undercut the horror and make a mess of an otherwise masterful tome. Ignore them when you can, because they really bring nothing to the table. The most egregious example of this centers around the organ in the chapel. Entirely too much space is spent on what happens when different songs are played on it, and the inclusion of modern music really took me out of the moment while reading. While Inna Gadda Da Vida by Iron Butterfly is a great classic rock song with an incredibly indulgent organ solo, it is included solely so the authors can make a joke about moths pouring out of the organ and attacking you. The moment someone in my group starts talking about playing Hall and Oates You Make my Dreams like keyboard cat, I will stand up, walk into the bathroom, down two bottles of Xanax I keep for just such an occasion, and end it all.

I want to stress that Death Frost Doom is, at is core, a horror adventure. It will confront and challenge you. It is not pretty. It is not easy. But damn if it is not fun. I give this adventure my highest possible recommendation.

GenCon Vampire 5th Edition Alpha Playtest

Greetings, cultists and devotes. The Full Metal RPG ecclesiarchy  attended the most recent GenCon, the 50th Anniversary. Our merry company of rot and corruption answered the call of our good friends at the Wrecking Crew to assist in demoing the newest iteration of a game near to our black hearts – Vampire: The Masquerade

The alpha edition comes with a scenario to play through titled Rusted Veins, a coterie of characters for use in playing the scenario, and a new rule set. Written by Matt Dawkins, Rusted Veins takes you back to city of Gary, Indiana, used as the setting for the prior adventures “Ashes to Ashes” and “Dust to Dust”, and focuses on the machinations of the nominally Camarilla Prince Modius and his rival, the Anarch Baron Juggler.

Gary is an economically devastated city. It has passed through Late Stage Capitalism directly into Terminal Stage Capitalism. Situated firmly in the Midwestern Rust Belt, it is a town where there occurred a systemic breakdown at nearly every level: Governmental, economic, corporate, and social. Abandoned factories line the riverfront like tombstones denoting the death of the American heartland, and driving down any major street yields a view of decaying buildings stretching out before you like a mouth full of broken teeth. No one stays in Gary because they want to, they remain because they have to. For kindred it is much the same. Anyone with any skill or ambition left long ago for the more urbane destinations of Chicago or Milwaukee, leaving Modius and Juggler to their squabbles.

I will avoid discussing the plot in any detail, as I am almost certain they will make this play-kit publicly available at some point for you, dear reader, to experience. Suffice to say, it starts with a pretty basic fetch quest handed to the coterie from on high, and then things take a turn for the worse. Every group I ran through the scenario ended it differently. It was fascinating how people interpreted the characters and how they had them behave as they moved through the world. There are a couple obvious stand out characters with regard to the story, who are absolutely essential to have in the game, and two who suffer a bit in terms of agency and interaction with the main arc. You could easily not have them played at all and it would not affect how the scenario runs. The remaining two characters are what you make of them, and can either be along for the ride or a serious thorn in the side of others if they chose to be.

Rules Alterations

There are a couple key changes you notice right away when looking at one of the provided character sheets. First off, willpower is now rated 1-5, not 1-10. There is a new trait, Composure, that replaces Conscience, Courage, and Self Control. Finally, there is no more blood pool, only a series of check-boxes listed as Hunger. We will examine these topics in the subsections below.

Dice Pools and Success

Dice pools are assembled as usual, with an attribute + a skill giving you the total number of dice to roll. Different colored Hunger die are placed into the pool first, one a one to one basis with the characters current Hunger rating. More on Hunger below. You round out the pool with normal dice and roll. Anything showing a 6+ is a success, and difficulty is the total number of successes you need on a roll to achieve your goal.

A roll of two or more 10 results on your normal dice is considered an exceptional success. 10s no longer explode, and 1s do not cancel out 10s. The botch mechanic is gone.

If you come up one success short on a roll, you may Succeed at Cost. You accomplish your goal, but you generate a complication in doing so. It is up to the player and storyteller to determine what that means. For example, if you are breaking into a house, you may succeed, but you drop your wallet as you enter, leaving it behind.

Willpower

Willpower is no longer spent for extra dice on a roll. Instead willpower is spent to re-roll any dice you would like to on a roll. You can keep any dice that show a success and only re-roll the failures. Given how powerful this mechanic is, it makes sense the willpower pool is now smaller. It can have a huge impact on the game when employed correctly.

Hunger

Hunger is an abstract representation of the current state of the kindred you are playing. As you employ disciplines and heal, you make hunger rolls to do so. A roll of 4+ and you are fine. The power activates or you heal a point of superficial damage. On 1-3 result, you active your power or heal, but you first increase your Hunger by 1. This increases the number of Hunger Dice in your dice pool.

Hunger dice have a couple of mechanical ticks. A roll of 1 or 2 is called a Fang result. Roll two fangs, and you have generated a Compulsion. Compulsions represent your vampiric nature coming to the fore, and are aptly named. They represent a complication for your character and how that character interacts with others and the world.

In practice, complications either need to occur more frequently, or have their severity increased to have any meaningful impact on the game. I only had two complications show up in all five games I ran, and they had no real impact on how the characters worked beyond one of the Brujah being slightly more punch happy, and said Brujah was already pretty punch happy.

A roll of one or more 10 results on your hunger dice represents a Messy Critical. A Messy Critical is as close as the new system comes to a botch. You succeed at what you were trying to do, but at great cost to yourself. In one of my games I had a character generate a messy critical when attacking a police officer with feral claws. I ruled he killed the man, but in so doing got his hands stuck in the officers body armor and was going to have to spend time and take damage extricating himself from the situation. A messy situation when you are surrounded by his armed, angry friends and wearing him as a bracelet. An exceptional success always overrides a Messy Critical.

As a final note, having Hunger rolls, a Hunger meter, and Hunger dice all having similar names but representing functionally different things caused a lot of confusion among the players. I eventually went back to calling Hunger rolls Rousing the Blood from the pre-alpha rule-set, and that helped a lot. Hunger and Hunger dice are linked enough that keeping their names the same worked out well.

Composure

Composure is rolled to resist frenzy and spent to avoid compulsions. The compulsions encountered in my play-throughs were never bothersome enough to warrant spending composure to resist them. For frenzy, you roll your current composure, seeking to roll under your humanity for the die to be considered a success. Thematically, this works well, as it represents less humane vampires being closer to their beast, and thus more likely to frenzy. From a rules perspective, this is an inversion of the usual process and caused a great deal of confusion for my players when we encountered it.

Humanity

Humanity has has significant alterations. It is still rated 1-10, but gone are the Hierarchy of Sins. Instead you have Touchstones, which are three mortals who hold special meaning to your characters. Having a touchstone be damaged causes you to lose a humanity. Having a touchstone destroyed loses two. If you are responsible for the injury or death, you lose more. Embracing a human causes you to lose an additional humanity. The worst case scenario, then, is to embrace your own touchstone. That will set you back quite a ways on your humanity track. Effectively you can kill humans when feeding or in combat without any effect. It is up to the Storyteller to decide when your character does something so heinous that she wishes to impose a humanity loss for the action.

Other Rules

There are changes to Initiative and Combat, but I don’t want to bog down too deeply into those, as I consider them ancillary to a Horror game. Necessary, but not the primary focus. Suffice to say, combat is fast and deadly. Vampires can destroy humans easily. All is right in the world for people who want to rip off someone’s jaw bone and beat them to death with it. Celerity level 1 is almost comically broken in a gunfight. I am hoping someone takes a look at it and either addresses it with regard to multiple combatants or changes the wording entirely.

Final Thoughts

The new vampire promises to be very good, even exceptional provided they continue their strong writing and focus on noir urban horror. As the global jyhad rescinds into the background, a more personal struggle for survival in the final nights takes center stage. The world is relentlessly bleak and the future is anything but certain. Welcome to YOUR World of Darkness.

Episode 28 – Beneath – The Inverted Church Kickstarter Review

In this episode Brendan and Ben keep it short and sweet with an in depth discussion of what’s new with gaming followed by a review of Justin Sirois’ Beneath: The Inverted Church currently gathering pledges on Kickstarter. And homie, let me tell you, it’s a doozey! So check out the episode and consider hitting up Kickstarter and maybe grabbing yourself a copy. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll barf up chunks. Is this Wayne’s World? Did you read to the bottom? Congratulations! No listen to the episode.

Music by Legion and a couple tracks from the latest Ghost album. Enjoy, striplings!