I’m a time poor and frankly lazy gamesmaster. If there is something out there to make my gaming life easier, I’m going to latch onto it and suck it dry. Like prewritten stories and characters. With the proliferation of epublishing and the cost of actual publishing, roleplaying companies are branching out into the production of PDF adventures, cheaper for gamers to buy and easy to download. Using house or open systems, they provide background information and more for the world hungry or time pressed player until the next core book comes out. Sometimes it’s the only way for small companies to get their stories heard. Epublishing has a bad reputation as a vehicle for low quality, badly edited vanity projects. So the question is – are they a worth the bytes they are written in?
Two recent issues are Black Rock Bandits for D&D 4e by PostMortem Studios and Ursa Carrien for SLA Industries by Nightfall Games.
Black Rock Bandits
This download is thirty black and white pages with some art and priced at $1.99. There are two full page colour maps and other smaller maps to aid the dungeon master. Also included are handy character counters to use if you don’t have appropriate models and the product is easy to print out. Cannily it is written in a way that your characters can just pile up to the village and assist in the way adventurer’s do, or can take on the role of the npcs and be absolutely invested in the threat. The story involves dealing with local bandits in various settings and getting to the bottom of some local mysteries. The six listed townsfolk all have good background information and reasons to be involved, which bypasses that headache. You can tell when a writer puts some effort in. A fire Mage baker, that’s a nice touch. I also like the tactics for the monsters and the straightforward well written text. This would make an excellent one off game or beginning to a campaign. The adventure might be hard for a small group but you could easily add or remove enemies depending on the size of the party. It should give a group a solid night of quality gaming and for that price you get a lot of bang (or fireball if you will) for your buck.
Publisher: Postmortem Studios
Ursa Carrien is a very different beast. Eight pages of coloured stylised design with integrated art, retailing at $1.49. It looks so shiny on my iPad, but i would hate to try and print it out at home. You are probably not supposed to, we are in the digital age after all. Rather than a pick up and play adventure like Bandits, it details a new area of Mort’s lethal Cannibal Sectors and the monster that lies within and includes a party mission (BPN to those that know). Included are short descriptions, tactics, statistics and related background flavour. Produced by the company that wrote the original game rather than being via open rules it’s very much a new section to a core book. Written to the same good standard and with the same high quality art, it is the most impressive looking download I’ve seen. And also one of the shortest. If you’re looking for value for money you might want to wait, the SLA releases are going to be bundled into a book but there’s no release date so you could be waiting a while. This pack is not for the GM looking for a quick fix but rather a fan of the game looking for excellent new material in the absence of traditionally published media.
Publisher: Nightfall Games
I have a soft spot for rpgs set in our world where things are not as they seem like Hunter, Cthulhu and now AEternal Legends. As an Aware, your character sees the world for its true nature, where monsters lurk under bridges, heroes rescue maidens and magic is no longer the stuff of fiction but is the tangible threads of the universe. Enchanted swords, sorcerers and mythical beasts exist and its up to you to help or hinder them. Will you fulfill your potential and bring Light and peace to the battlefield or side with the Dark, embracing it’s seductive power and fall further than the unaware can dream?
Legends are the most powerful of Aware. They can come from any races or Clades – human, dwarf, elf, gnome, troll, orc and goblin; characters undergoing a physical and spiritual change with developing awareness called manifestation. You think you’re an accountant from Manchester? Well actually…. This is a game of the fantasy of your youth before it became cynical and modern and mostly about vampires and werewolves. The ruleset is Ready2Run, a high trust, quick and loose system. Players choose a clade and a sphere for their characters. A sphere is a general role in society linked to an area of expertise, for example Splendor to knowledge and Victory to art. The usual attribute points, edges and flaws are here and aptitudes are professions both mundane and magical. A list of snappy beliefs and a few skill points round out character creation. Conviction points, gained by acting along with your beliefs, act like fate or story points, allowing you to modify your rolls. Losing them is bad news, hit zero and you are no longer Aware! Interestingly the social class of the character is relevant and comes into play during some social tasks, as well as defining your available equipment. Combat works by allocating your wits pool to actions and defence, so being tactical is essential.
I like this rpg a lot. It awards narrative points for excellent description and roleplaying, encouraging your players to go that extra mile and it matters if you act out of character. The magic system is very open, reminiscent of Mage and Ars Magica, where the player chooses their own effects. The multiple sidebars are helpful and the setting is easy to understand. It also tickles me that if you roll all 6s then you suffer misfortune due to the ‘number of the beast’. The book is well written with an understanding of what makes or a good gaming experience and the art is cool. However the game isn’t perfect, there are ideas here that feel old such as the Ministry of Magic (sorry, Administrative Affairs) and pocket kingdoms and the combat system isn’t quite as simple as it would have you believe. The description of manifestation also seems a little light, I would have liked more on such an important part of the character journey.
AEternal Legends is a fantastic example of a game produced by a small indie company. You can feel the designer’s devotion, there is already a free to download adventure and sourcebook for urban monsters, with more support material promised. It is these sorts of RPGs that we should be supporting wholeheartedly to keep the hobby alive and full of variety.
Now excuse me, I’m off to battle those ghouls pretending to be traffic wardens.
Publisher: Mob United Games
If I said The Avengers, you’d know exactly the setting of rpg Agents of SWING. The Cold War, short skirts and fast cars mixed in with international mayhem and poured for your pleasure. Players are employees of the Supreme World Intelligence Network Group and are battling against whatever evil organisation Control (otherwise known as the GM) can come up with in the grooviest manner possible.
The attitude of the game is definitely uncomplicated amusement. Stunts, cliches and zippy one liners are positively encouraged. If you aren’t poking fun at the enemy, wrestling a shark and firing a laser from your watch you are doing it wrong. Agents of SWING is well detailed with twelve (thirteen?) departments to assist you and send you on missions. The often thorny issue of money is absent, gadgets are purchased with advancements or you are given what you need as part of the job. Every character also has a cover which the player creates, meaning you get two concepts for the price of one, like a steel hearted professional killer pretending to be an international playboy. The 60’s setting makes for interesting challenges – imagine no mobile phone, no Internet or advanced forensic testing. Players have to get creative and engage those brains to get things done. On the upside if there is no global meglomedia then who is to know what the Prince of Butani looks like or even if that is a country!
I’m impressed by the many pages of games master advice that really detail what you need to know and be able to do. Coupled with the vast number of recognisable npcs and straightforward way to create enemy organisations should mean playing Control is less of a daunting task. I like the simple but striking artwork, helpful timeline and the breezy character sheet. As someone who has spent far too long cutting up photocopied pages I appreciate the collected tables, making it a snitch to print out your own reference sheets.
There are many things to love about Agents of SWING but I have to put my hands up and say I personally don’t like the FATE system it uses. FATE is open source and has been used in other games such as Starblazer. I agree the mechanics are simple and easy going and lends itself well to this sort of game. My problems are the negative dice – roll 2d6, take one from another, leading to more failures than I think there should be, and the character Aspects. Instead of stats you have a number of Aspects which describe your character which in turn influences your rolls. For example, the Aspect “Mine of Useless Information” gives you a bonus when trying to recall odd facts to say, impress a target scientist. I find this method too broad, open to abuse and daunting for some players.
However this is just my own niggle, it may not be an issue for anyone else. I hear there are tons of supplements on the horizon and even a deluxe printed version with pencils and dice! It is always encouraging that a game is going to be supported beyond it’s first release, showing real love for the product. I’d like to see a book on SWING in the modern world, how it has changed and what happens when agents get old? But I’m being greedy. This is a humorous, action packed, free wheeling game without complicated rules.
In the words of Austin Powers “Its totally shagadelic.”
Publisher: Postmortem Studios
Ever heard of The Bloody Code? Me neither, but it’s the setting for the Tough Justice courtroom roleplaying game. It was one of the darkest times in British legal history, running from the late 17th to early 19th Centuries. There were over two hundred offenses that could lead you to the gallows via a colourful and exciting legal system. In this game the players are split into two teams – the Defence and Prosecution, the aim is to convict or acquit the accused. A true life or death situation.
Tough Justice utilises the ”Beer and Crisps” mechanic which is very simple and I like that. Choose one of yor six stats, roll a d6, add, modify by merits and flaws, compare. Winning tests adds to your case total and the side with the most points determines the poor defendant’s outcome. There are character classes but these don’t define your abilities, more your role in the trial – lawyers, police types and allies. Allies are everyone else that could be involved in the story, including women and children. As the time setting suggests, playing a women has it’s own special difficulties but they aren’t ignored or relegated, so anything goes. Including felons themselves! The case is split into phases, allowing for pre trial actions. Handy for the characters who aren’t able to talk in court due to the laws in place at the time. Here they get to investigate, harass, seduce or whatever else may help their side win. The book is a hefty two hundred and sixty pages with minimal art but I imagine that helps keep it nice and cheap at ten dollars to download as PDF.
There are many good things about Tough Justice. Never before have I seen such detailed examples of play throughout the book, following an entire case from start to finish using player’s dialogue. It is littered with helpful hints and has a seventeen page ‘olde slang english’ lexicon. They have obviously really tried to help the players understand both the game and the legal proceedings of the time, without getting too technical. Also included are suggestions for making the game kiddie friendly and LARP, something other games would benefit from. I personally like the rules for rolling up defendants and the group story generation. You need a game to play that evening and have nothing prepared? A game of Tough Justice can easily fill that gap as encounters can be player driven without much difficulty and the judge purely reactive.
The biggest challenge with Tough Justice is that it’s a game about playing through a trial in a court of law. When I first proposed it to my gaming group they weren’t jumping up and down with excitement. There are no bad guys to destroy, empires to build, civilisations to protect. The scope is very small, one life to save from the gallows with wits and cunning. Unless this appeals, it’s going to be a hard sell. However I think the game has excellent potential as additional rules to use in your current campaign, whatever setting that may be. Vigilante finally caught by the police? Pirate brought before the conclave for breaking the code? Spaceship pilot threatened with court martial? Tough Justice can be adapted to play out the trials in a way usually glossed over during sessions. Imagine how impassioned a player would be to save his character from a carbonite judgement after two years of play!
As an experienced gamer I would recommend Tough Justice as a well produced game with reams of background knowledge of the time, a simple ‘pick up and play’ concept and it’s usefulness in other campaigns. To misquote the judges of the time and their dreaded sentence of death “Take this game from whence it came, to be held in the hands until read.”
I am understandably sceptical about games that are part of advertising campaigns (this one is for chewing gum) but the Nightjar had three reasons that made me bother to download it from the app store. Interesting gaming concept, the new Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) doing the voice and its free. The premise – on an abandoned spaceship you must escape using only sound. Of course you are not alone.
Picture me ready to play, sitting in lowlight with large headphones and my iPad. The intro starts and my heart is in my mouth. It reminded me of the new breed of rollercoasters, where you sit in the car and they throw story at you in the dark, then whoosh! You’re off. Or not if like me, you haven’t updated your iTunes and iPad software recently. Crash city.
Take two and this time I get into the game proper. The only controls are walking forward and turning right and left. Seems simple? It is for the first few levels. Listen to the noises, head in the right direction. Though you might be wishing you had bothered to use that volume limiter on your music player or not attended so many loud concerts when you realise your hearing is that of an old man. There are fourteen levels in total and it was at seven that I started having problems. I would love to tell you how much harder it gets, but I can’t. I’m stuck on level eight. Is it ironic that I keep dying in the human waste room?
Atmospherically The Nightjar is right on the money. Aliens is one of my favourite films, imagine how much more terrifying it would be for Ripley if she couldn’t see anything at all, just hear the approaching xenomorph horde and the helpful computer calling out their increasing numbers. And she hasn’t got a gun. Downsides – there is a limited amount of narration which isn’t tailored to what you do in the game. Die from standing still and you still get the ‘don’t move too fast or you’ll die’ advice and for a game on the iPad you have to double size the iPhone version, making the menus slightly blurry. If you have a choice, play it on the iPad – the larger screen makes your movements far easier. I would also recommend the quiet, darkened venue. It helps you concentrate and adds to the tension. No need to be embarrassed in front of other commuters when you jump out of your skin and rip off your headphones. Thank goodness for volume control.
Extrapolation tells me if you play through it all first time it will take you about an hour to finish, but that’s a big if. You can’t skip forward to levels you haven’t unlocked yet and with names like ‘deep space’ and ‘exit pursued by an alien’ they do not fill me with confidence of successful completion. Did I enjoy playing it? Surprisingly yes, though i didn’t appreciate the increased heart rate. I doubt I would play it again if I ever did get to the end as the game does not have additional challenges. There is no score, you are either dead or alive.
Overall for me it was a fun and scary experience, fantastic for a free game, and a great use of the touch screen on the iPad. The campaign promises ‘a sensory overload in different areas of gaming, music, art, film and fashion’. If the other elements are of a similar quality then they might be worth investigation.
As soon as I get out of this septic tank.