Tabletop Gaming

We’re All Geeks

I’m just gonna leave this here for you because it’s made of fucking awesome.

Jurassic Dice


Dino dice logo

A while ago, I wrote a review of Steve Jackson’s highly entertaining Zombie Dice game. There was a very silly expansion involving Santa and cheerleaders (and I mean that in a good way), which has now been followed up with a new stand alone game using the same background mechanic: Dino Hunt Dice.

Unlike the previous game, where the premise was to eat as many yummy human brains as possible, this time you’re trying to capture dinosaurs for your zoo – I like to think of it as people too lazy to make their own Jurassic Park from scratch indulging in a bit of suicidal industrial espionage. As with Zombie dice, you get a cardboard dice cup with the game, although this one is a little dinkier than its elder sibling’s. You also receive ten dice and a mercifully brief sheet of rules.

There are three types of dice, although the brains have been replaced with dinosaurs, and the shotguns with leaves. The footsteps remain, but their roles have been switched – instead of being a good thing, now they are a very bad thing indeed, and mean that instead of escaping, you’ve been “stomped” by an unhappy dino who didn’t appreciate your efforts to bag him. There are five green dice (apatosaurus), three yellow ones (triceratops) and two red ones (tyrannosaurus), with progressively more footprints and fewer monsters.

Players take turns in selecting three dice from the cup, chosen at random and without peeking. They then roll those dice, and see what they get: dinosaurs are put to one side, as are stompy footprints. Provided all three dice didn’t roll stomps, then the player chooses enough dice to make their hand back up to three and rolls again, if they want to; leaf dice are rerolled. All dice are returned to the pot when players change over, with the running total of dinosaurs captured marked by tokens (which aren’t supplied). The first person to twenty dinos wins.

It’s a deceptively simple mechanic, requiring each player to make a judgement on how much they want to push their luck in any given turn; after all, if you acquire three stomps in one roll sequence, you lose any dinos you’ve captured in that sequence. Sometimes nerves of steel pay off – in one game, my husband kept rolling and managed a streak of eight dinos and only two feet! It also meant he beat me…

This is a fast, easily portable game and a great deal of fun. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be an accompanying app for this incarnation of the game. The lack of tokens is understandable as it will keep the costs down, but given the propensity of Steve Jackson Games to produce tie-in tat for Munchkin, I am a little surprised they haven’t done the same for these games – there is room in the cup for storage.

PS: In looking to see if SJG did have associated tie-in tat, I discovered that they also have a version of these games for deer hunting called Trophy Buck. Ick…

Knights of a Thousand Stars: Camelot Cosmos

Camelot Cosmos is the first in a series of tabletop roleplaying sourcebooks by author Daniel Jupp, published by Postmortem Studios. It describes the realms of Camelot, a system of planets whose identity and history have predominantly been drawn from the misremembered pages of Arthurian legend (think original Star Trek episodes “A Piece of the Action” and “Bread and Circuses”), where two great royal houses battle eternally for total control. In charge of one of these tempestuous houses is Gawain XXIII, King of Camelot and the chivalric realms of Pendragon. His rival is the cruel but beautiful Queen Morgan, an unnaturally long-lived combination of mortal and Ascended god. Their minions wage war across the cosmos, both covertly and not so covertly, with both sides locked in a seemingly unbreakable stalemate, watched over by a pantheon of deities that occasionally step in to lend a hand. Artefacts of great power from the lost First Empire still remain, and many seek these (and the legendary sleeping warriors from this period) to aid in their struggle.

This particular book is the players’ guide (although that’s not immediately obvious from the cover), and details the rules, character creation, basic setting and personalities of the Camelot Cosmos, with constant hints of what’s to come in the Gamesmaster’s (GM’s) Guide. The rules are based on a stripped down version of the FATE system from Evil Hat Productions, which makes them pretty straight forward and quick to grasp. A character’s abilities are governed by Aspects, which each give the characters a portfolio of skills. To achieve goals, characters roll 2 six-sided dice (2d6), one “positive” and one “negative”, subtract the negative die from the positive die, add the relevant skill bonus and see if they have beaten a difficulty number set by the GM and based on the FATE Ladder. Degrees of success or failure are determined by “shifts” (i.e. the difference between the target difficulty number and the total from the skill roll) and can be altered by spending Fate points, if required. Fate points can also be spent to remove stresses and consequences (damage) and to improve skills.

Character creation is also stripped down and speedy. A player rolls or chooses three Aspects: a Physical or Psychological one, a Racial or Regional one and a Professional one. They then write a quick sentence to describe how they came by these Aspects and assign skill points within them. What is missing are the quirky, evocative names for the Aspects that are normally found in FATE games; I quite understand the author’s argument as to why he chose not to use them, but personally I think it’s a bit of a shame, particularly given the rich setting. Still, within a few minutes you can have a fully functional character: mine (rolled up just to prove how quick and easy it was) turned out to be an Ugly, Lower Tintagen Spy, born to a slave in the court of King Mark, who had risen to a position of court entertainer despite the disfiguring birthmark he possessed, before being recruited as a spy by one of King Gawain’s minions. There are one or two niggles with the character creation section: there are lots of Aspect lists that aren’t immediately relevant to starting game play, meaning you have to hunt out the lists that are, and some of the Aspect definitions are a little hinky (just because you’re Charming doesn’t automatically mean you’re devious, and being Humble shouldn’t automatically make you poor, either). These are pretty minor, though, and the associated skills lists and descriptions are comprehensive yet mercifully brief.

The setting is certainly interesting, blending Arthurian icons with recognisable genre settings (such as the American Wild West, Ancient Rome and Aboriginal Australia with what sounded very much like dinosaurs) and there is quite a bit of information present. There are details on the Four Courts of power (King Gawain, Queen Morgan, King Tristram and King Mark) and the associated realms associated with each (effectively splitting the Cosmos into Kingsland and Queensland), and character bios on major players in each Court. The three churches are covered briefly (Seraphic, Nephilic and Druidic) along with fleeting glimpses of the First Empire. I’m not sure all of it quite gelled for me (particularly the appearance of the Pinkerton Detective Agency), but there’s certainly plenty of scope for a wide variety of adventuring within the Cosmos.

The book’s layout is uncluttered and straightforward and the use of printed circuit diagrams overlaid with stylised flower motifs is simple but striking. Not all of the artwork succeeds in conveying the feeling of the game, mimicking as it does Aubrey Beardsley which, despite its Art Nouveau swirls and sensibilities, feels more Shakespearean to me than Arthurian (despite Beardsley’s work for Le Morte D’Arthur). I was also a little distracted by the watermark, which for some reason stands out far more on an iPad than on a computer screen (but that really is an incredibly minor point).

The biggest niggle with this book is the fact that it doesn’t contain the GM’s Guide. Although a skilled GM will definitely be able to run an entertaining and varied game with what is provided, there are so many hints and references to the GM’s Guide that its absence is a bit of a slap in the face. One of the main things missing from this book, apart from a passing mention of nanites, is just how “magic” works in the Cosmos, and what’s going on with the whole First Empire plotline; there’s also no introductory scenario. I know all of this is in the GM’s Guide, but I do like everything in one place. Again, I understand and sympathise with the reason for separate volumes, but it does make it harder to give a fair and balanced review of the game as a whole when half of it is located elsewhere.

All in all, this is an interesting concept, a straightforward system and a potentially very rich world to play in. Other sourcebooks, detailing different parts of the Cosmos separate from Camelot, are also promised, as is an ability to trot between them. But, as mentioned above, this book is also a terrible tease – promising you a glimpse behind the veil, but never fully revealing itself. And whilst it’s always good to have a little breathing space so you can let your own imagination run riot to fill in the gaps, it could also serve to put off less confident players and GMs, which would be a real shame.

Still, I look forward to seeing what else Mr Jupp has to offer…


Let Me Tell You A Story

Like most gamers (or at least, most of the ones I know), I have a bit of a thing for dice. I have a gigantic collection of them, far more than I will ever need or even use. Well, unless I end up running into a dragon again in Shadowrun (you know something is overpowered when a room full of gamers doesn’t have enough dice between them to manage the attack roll…)

Rory's Story Cubes

So when I found Rory’s Story Cubes in the mighty Leisure Games last year, I had to have them. Presented in a lovely little slipcase (the inner box has a magnetic flap to keep everything safe during transit), you get nine six-sided dice. But instead of dots, you have little cartoon pictures, ranging from straightforward items like an arrow and a pyramid, to slightly more abstract ones, like the comedy & tragedy masks and a demonic shadow.

The idea of the game is storytelling: roll all nine dice then try to make a story using the images on them. It’s quite an entertaining little exercise to try this on your own, but taking turns with friends is where this game shines. Due to the random element of dice rolling, you never quite know what’s going to come up, allowing you to create some weird and wonderful modern fables, either co-operatively or competitively.

And that’s basically it: the rules booklet is tiny and the instructions take up just over two and a bit inches square. The dice are sturdy and well printed, big enough for the recommended ages to handle easily but not too bulky for transporting here, there and everywhere (although apparently there are plans for giant ones, primarily for special needs children and group work). There is also an expansion set (“Actions“), which I have, and another one (“Voyages“), which I don’t (but intend to get hold of as soon as possible). Oh yes, and there’s the inevitable app for everyone’s favourite i-device – but heck, as fun as that might be, that’s not even real dice, so doesn’t actually count.

Because the game is fast and portable, it’s perfect for travelling and impromptu game sessions (say, down the pub or when not enough people turn up for your regular table-top game). Part of me also dearly wants to carry out an experiment to see if I can generate a coherent table-top scenario using nothing but these dice, just for fun. And that’s what this game is all about: pure and simple fun. As someone else’s advertising campaign used to say: “the only limit is your imagination.”


Here Be Dragons

I’m not very good at most computer games (now there’s an admission and a half from someone writing on a gaming blog), usually because I panic and press all the wrong buttons when things get a bit tricky. But I am good at solving puzzles and spotting things, so here at Chez Pixie most of our console gaming is co-operative: he hits things and I tell him where to go and what to do. And that includes the racing games…

I have a massive soft spot for computer RPGs, despite my rather unfortunate first encounter with them via The Hobbit back in the dim and distant 1980s (but that’s another story). I also have a long and rich history with their table-top cousins; the first game I ever ran at University was using the original red box D&D rules and despite the fact that I only used them briefly (because all of the players had been raised on red box and as a result, I felt I couldn’t surprise them with it), I still have very fond memories of that set, crappy dice and all.

So when we were playing Dragon Age: Origins (by the mighty Bioware), I got a serious attack of the warm fuzzies – you know, that glowing nostalgia for an old-fashioned but much-loved game you thought you’d never see the like of again. I’m not a huge one for game mechanics (funnily enough), but the fact that you could see characters marching steadfastly through the basic D&D rules on screen made me chuckle. The dialogue, though corny in places, was perfectly in-keeping with its origins and I loved it to bits. Dragon Age 2 was also great fun, although I missed the freedom of choosing your starting character’s race. And if Dragon Age 3 isn’t centred on Varric, it’ll be a crying shame (Best Adventuring Companion Ever).

It was, therefore, with a sense of dread that I heard Green Ronin had announced that they were actually going to produce a “proper” Dragon Age RPG (and by proper, I mean table-top); after all, there have been some truly awful conversions of big name intellectual properties to other types of format in the past, RPGs included. But when I saw the box set nestled on the shelf of our Friendly Local Game/Comic Shop over Christmas, I had to have a look, just to see if it really was a train wreck in progress.

My first impression was one of amusement: the cover of the box is very tat fantasy, with an elf, a dwarf and a mage kicking the bejeebers out of some nasty Darkspawn greeblies. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautifully executed and the elf-babe is actually fully dressed – in fact, its perfect for what it’s attempting to emulate (apart from the over-abundance of clothing). The back of the box blurb is straight to the point, too: this is old-school roleplaying and a portal into table-top for those not familiar with the form. Oh yeah, and it has free dice in it as well. Free dice. What’s not to love?

Apart from the dice (three of them; two white six-siders and a red one), you get a Player’s Guide, a Game Master’s Guide and a map of Ferelden. This particular set is for characters of Levels 1-5 (thus continuing the whole original red box theme). At this point I decided it must be mine, whether it was any good or not. Now, having read it, I can tell you that it is good; yes, there are flaws, but on the whole this is a smashing little system that does everything the new and improved current red box D&D tries, but fails, to do (which just goes to show that new and improved is not always better than old and allegedly inferior).

The Player’s Guide sets the scene for the players, with the obligatory “What Is A Roleplaying Game?” section and some notes on group dynamics and game concepts. You then get a far too brief section on the history of Ferelden. This is one of the major points for which the game loses marks for me: okay, if you’ve not played the video version of the game, I’m not quite sure why you’d pick this version up, but some of us don’t have perfect recall anymore and some of the background intricacies have kind of got mixed up with other properties (<cough> Skyrim <cough>), so it really could have done with a bit more oomph.

After the world set-up comes character generation. Nice and simple this bit: roll your 3d6 to generate eight ability scores, pick your background concept (pretty much whether you’re a human, dwarf or elf), tweak it and then choose your class (of which there are three: warrior, mage and rogue) and then tweak some more. The background concept is a little more involved than that, seeing as you have seven actual templates to choose between, but the system is streamlined enough to get a character up and running pretty quickly.

The next chapter goes into more detail about your character’s skills, known in this game as focuses (shouldn’t that be foci?) and talents. A focus is an ability specialisation and a talent is a more specific skill (like weapons training, for example), all of which help to differentiate the characters despite the limited starting choices. Next up is the weapons chapter, which comes with the most adorable set of armour paintings that made me long for a paper doll version of Alistair I could dress up in each one. As with character creation, everything is kept simple and there are no encumbrance rules (The One Ring, take note). Chapter Five deals with magic, another mercifully short and to the point section that gives you what you need to play, rather than endless lists of fireworks that usually bore me to tears and make me give up reading a game all together. The final chapter is an overview of the game rules, such as action resolution and health. There’s even a glossary and an index (and a photocopiable character sheet on the back!). For those of you not sufficiently Luddite, there’s also a link somewhere to a downloadable pdf version.

The artwork on the cover of the GM’s Guide is much more like it, with the good lady mage basically dressed like Morrigan-inna-hoodie. It starts with advice for the GM on setting up a game, creating a story (again, a bit brief, but solid nevertheless) and the different types of GM and player styles. I’m not sure I agree with all of their definitions, some of which may be down to proof-reading failures, which seem to be much more prevalent in this book than the Player’s Guide. Chapter Two looks at the rules in more detail, and even then, they’re nice and bijou.

At its most basic, each dice roll (or test) involves rolling your 3d6 and adding a couple of relevant modifiers. If you roll doubles on the dice, you generate stunt points which allow you to add particular special effects. The red die is known as the Dragon Die, and can alter the outcome of the roll (in terms of degree of success or failure), as well as telling you how many stunt points you get when you do roll doubles. In most cases you’ll be trying to equal or beat a target number, but you might be making opposed rolls (against someone or something else) or an advanced test, which aims to simulate events that take time and uses a threshold mechanism rather than a straight success/fail one. And that’s pretty much it in a nutshell – it really is introductory in every way, shape and form.

There’s a nice chapter on the type of creatures you’re likely to find in Ferelden, including Mabari war dogs (a must-have as far as I’m concerned), and a final one on rewarding your players (oh yes, XP!) before you get to the sample scenario. Now these things are a often a nightmare to write, because you have no idea what players are going to come up with character-wise, so it must be all things to all people. This particular one, “The Dalish Curse”, does suffer from being a bit rumpty-tumpty (and I can see some players running riot with it as written, or wandering off in totally the wrong direction), but it does its best under trying circumstances.

There’s nothing about the Grey Wardens in this set: they’re inBox2(Levels 6-10, or the old dark blue D&D box for those of you who remember these things). Its best to think of this first set as being the section of the video game at the beginning, when you blunder about working through your character’s initial background material (for us, it was all the political manoeuvring surrounding the new Dwarven King). And I enjoyed reading this so much, and making little “awww!” noises at it, that I’ve gone and bought the second box as well (much to the delight of the lovely lass in Travelling Man Newcastle, who was tired of only selling the starter box to people).

So if you want to indulge in a bit of misty-eyed wallowing that harks back to the alleged Golden Age of gaming, or are looking for a way into table-top through a familiar background, this is actually a pretty good place to start. Nicely produced, a good price and a fun, fast read. Go on, give it a go – you know you want to…


Pick’n’Mix Roleplaying

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
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


Sex Sells


I’ve played my fair share of prostitutes in roleplaying games. Okay maybe more than my fair share as it’s the sort of talky, seductive, manipulative character I like. So a game where everyone is part of the oldest profession? Gimme gimme! Courtesans is a mature RPG where the characters are part of the Demi Monde, the VictorIan underworld of accepted irrespectability, sharing a house and trading favours for money and influence. Competing for admirers, aiding each other in times of need and perhaps even providing comfort of an intimate nature? These women are complicated creatures, far removed from the street walkers of our popular culture.

Courtesans is a sister game to the previously reviewed Tough Justice RPG. Same period setting, same “Beer and Crisps” mechanics but with a few tweaks. It’s a good system focusing on character description rather than statistics and fits with the game’s ethos of player driven story rather than adventure dished out by passing monsters. Courtesans are divided into broad categories called origins, which act like classes, bestowing positive and negative qualities in line with their beginnings – Actresses, Professionals, Fallen Ladies, Goldenhearts, Schemers and Upstarts. Perhaps here I would introduce rolls to randomise the physical aspects rather than letting the players choose them. I could see how most Courtesans designed by male players could end up top heavy supermodels! The character’s experience is measured by resources in five different categories – Legend, Reputation, Wealth, Influence and Scandal and as play progresses they fluctuate. During a session, or season, Courtesans procure ‘admirers’, complete actions such as conversation, sex and spying, then attend the Cyprian Ball. The ball is a chance for the Courtesan to celebrate their achievements and give a final boost to their resources. The session is run by a Landlady, who is interestingly also a character herself. Thus the gamesmaster can guide the game in a more hands on manner, which is an excellent idea.

Other great aspects of this book are that a typical gaming session is laid out in detail for new players and GMs, the wealth of historical background information including the Royalty as customers and advanced rules for groups that want to delve deeper into the Demi Monde. I especially like the progression system where successful actions are eventually traded for character investments rather than merely improving your dice rolls.

There is one major section of the rules I personally don’t like. Not because of the mechanics but the subject and the all too gritty reality of the situation – pregnancy. Each season the Courtesan must test to see if any of her liaisons ended with a baby on the horizon. I can understand it’s inclusion but rolling for stillbirths, mother deaths and handicapped children is an emotional step too far for me and might also be for other women playing the game. Also where are the sexually transmitted diseases? Surely if you do one the other should be detailed. However this is not the focus of the game and it could be easily written out if desired.

This game is certainly entertaining, interesting and different to most RPGs out there. I would recommend it as reading for any GM wanting to include ‘ladies of the night’ in their game as more than an easy snack, giving them depth and intrigue. Coming soon is an additional setting book, Courtesans: Weird & Wonderful which could turn this game from an rare treat to a regular indulgence. Providing I can persuade the boys to play of course. I’m thinking props….


Publisher: Postmortem Studios