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…
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
For fifty minutes one cold November day, I was Sally Sparrow.
Perhaps an explanation is in order: this was 2009 and Cubicle 7 were in the process of releasing their Dr Who tabletop roleplaying game1. It wasn’t actually available for sale at that time due to shipping issues, but they were still running demos at Dragonmeet. It was so much fun that we put in a pre-order and eagerly awaited the day when it would drop through the letterbox and into our clammy little paws. We also won a Dalek standee the same day, but that’s another story…
There have been three Dr Who roleplaying games so far. The first was published by FASA2 in 1985 and has Tom Baker and Leela on the front cover, even though neither of them was still in the show by that point. The second was “Timelord” by Virgin3; unusually for the time, it was printed as a standard paperback and marketed as such to fit in with their line of novels. It includes the following classic piece of advice for novice roleplayers: “Role-playing is like acting: some people are good at it and others are appalling. There are some splendid examples of bad acting in the television series, so a player who cannot throw himself into a role is hardly setting a precedent – in fact he is making an accurate contribution to the adventure!” Er, right.
So why am I writing a review for a game that’s almost two years old now? Because it’s a good game and many people probably don’t know that it’s out there. Also, the new series of Doctor Who has just broadcast one of its best episodes ever. But also because at some point this year, Cubicle 7 will be releasing an updated version with all new artwork and some new monster material to bring it into the Eleventh Doctor’s reign. You can still get hold of the Tenth Doctor edition, which is what I’ll be reviewing here, an eye-poppingly gorgeous boxed set and well worth a look if you can’t wait patiently for the new stuff.
And, yes, I said boxed set. Many of the early RPGs came as multiple booklets in a box with a few dice. They then graduated onto A4-ish hard or soft-backs. Others, like Timelord, have been published in a smaller, more recognised format. Like its FASA predecessor, Cubicle 7’s game has gone for the traditional boxed set, but not for the same reasons. Licensing intellectual property is a very complex area these days; someone else already has the licence to produce Dr Who books, so the designers have been forced to be creative and return to gaming’s roots all at the same time. And yes, it has dice in it. They have TARDIS blue dots on them.
It also has a lot of other stuff in it: a Player’s guide, a Gamemaster’s guide, an adventures book, character sheets, pop-out gadget cards, story point counters and a four sided rules summary, all very similar to James Wallis’ favourite game of all time, the hugely influential Ghostbusters4. And that’s one of the game’s strengths: it has learnt from the best of the past and given the players a fast, simple way into the game that doesn’t necessarily require several days’ reading first. You can pick up the quick start guide (helpfully labelled “Read This First!”) and the pre-generated character sheets (Tennant’s Doctor, Rose, Mickey, Martha, Donna, the decent, non-Torchwood version of Captain Jack, Sarah Jane and the tin dog) and just get on with it. There’re not many games that you can say that about.
Obviously there are rules for creating your own characters; basically, you start with a set number of points that you assign to particular areas. In this game, that’s Attributes, Skills and Traits. There are six Attributes, which give your character a rough idea of their overall capabilities. Then there are your Skills, which make it all a bit more specific. I freely admit that this is the point at which I often give up on RPGs; the background might be amazing, but endless lists of abilities usually kill my enthusiasm stone dead. Fortunately this time, I survived.
Possibly the most interesting of these three areas are the Traits, which show a genuine knowledge and affection for the setting. The best examples of this are “Resourceful Pockets” (a Doctor staple) and “Screamer!” which made me laugh a great deal (even more so now after River’s comment to the Doctor in “The Impossible Astronaut”). There are also bad Traits, which gain you extra points to spend elsewhere, a fairly common idea in gaming but again containing a nice nod to the show’s history, particularly in the form of “Unadventurous”. This Trait can be used to “retire” a character from the story by giving the companion a reason to leave when they are fed up of being cold and wet, hypnotised left, right and centre, shot at, savaged by bug eyed monsters or not knowing whether they’re coming or going or been. There are also some fairly special Traits for aliens and Timelords, should you wish to play such high-powered characters.
What about the mechanics? Well, they’re fast, fun and very organic. It involves a little bit of maths (rolling two dice, adding them together then adding two more numbers to that, comparing it to a difficulty and seeing if you’d beaten it and by how much), but nothing too strenuous. That’s as far as it has to go, but there is a very nice touch in what could basically be described as the Vicki Pollard mechanic (“Yeah, but, no, but”). This allows you to have degrees of success and failure based on how far above/below the target number you were set and its great for getting some extra dramatics into the game if you don’t already do that sort of thing. You’ll also find quite a few tables and loads of examples to support game play, some from familiar episodes and some new.
A rather cool feature is the order in which events will happen during any given encounter: those who wish to talk go first (so they can do the whole tenth Doctor Shouty Man thing if they want), then those who wish to run, run (again, all very in-keeping with the show’s formula). Those who wish to do something (like build a gadget) go next and finally those wishing to resort to violence have to wait until the end. The anti-gun message is perhaps a little strident given the Doctor’s previous history regarding fire-arms (and UNIT), but it does fit with Tennant’s holier-than-thou attitude on the matter. I’d be very interested to see if this changes with the new edition, seeing as the Doctor has admitted finding River’s gunplay really rather enticing. There’s a whole load of stuff on damage and how to use the system’s story points to avoid getting moshed (and how to get more of them if you’re running a bit low), and an entire chapter of hints and tips for the new player. Needless to say, they’re rather more useful than the one from Timelord. And all this is just in the Player’s Guide!
The Gamemaster’s Guide is as sumptuously produced as its companion; my only real niggle with it (putting my lecturer’s hat on) is that there are some really odd grammatical choices in parts of the editing that felt really jarring (and that I’d mark my students down for). But then, I am incredibly old-fashioned that way, although I haven’t quite taken to wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. Yet. And then there’s that odd box on the top of page 53 about introducing characters in a game, slap bang in the middle of a section on healing and damage…
The rest of the GM’s book is good; straightforward to read, littered with examples from the series, only one of which I couldn’t place for the life of me (the SS Nakamura, anyone?) and some lovely humour harking back to the original series. Indeed, the Brig gets his infamous quote about aliens being resistant to bullets included in the description of potential alien immunities that will tickle long-standing fans without confusing new ones (à la the whole “Who the hell is Rassilon?” debacle at the end of the specials). Essentially for this type of book, it covers exactly what you’d need it to: story-telling advice, monster details and a more in-depth discussion of the rules. They’ve even duplicated some of the critical information from the Player’s Guide as well, so the GM doesn’t have to go borrowing the players’ book from them at a crucial moment.
All in all, this is a lovely shiny game with fun accessories, a well balanced rule system that can be pruned to suit your group’s playing style and sufficient support to get you going in the right direction. Cubicle 7 did say that they’d release the equivalent of a patch for people who already own the original version of the game when the new edition comes out, which suggests the changes will be mostly cosmetic. There is one other boxed set available (Monsters and Aliens) and a whole raft of others lined up for release in the summer. But then, they were also going to get released last year, which was somewhat scuppered by Tennant’s leaving and the whole re-branding issue. Never mind, I’m sure they’ll appear in time…
1 – Dr Who: Adventures in Time and Space, the Role Playing Game (2009) David F. Chapman et al; Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd
2 – The Dr Who Role Playing Game: Adventures Through Time and Space (1985) FASA
3 – Timelord: Adventures Through Time and Space (1991) Ian Marsh & Peter Darvill-Evans; Virgin
4 – Ghostbusters, a Frightfully Cheerful Roleplaying Game (1986) Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis & Greg Stafford;West EndGames
We all have our favourites.
Favourite guilty pleasure TV show.
Favourite gaming platform.
When we all make a choice, oh wait…erm…okay. When most make a choice of what platform they will favour and play on they have a reason. If you’re me you never make a choice completely. The question is, why do you favour one platform over another? I don’t mean, which is better, but why do you like it so much that you’re willing to sink your hard earned cash into it.
I lie, I do play favourites. I have an irrational and rational bias towards the Sony platforms. In regards to the Playstations, it’s usually been a hardware and game bias, mostly hardware. I do love my DS, but there’s just something nice about the shiny PSP that makes me love it. That aside I do own all 3 consoles, both handhelds and a kick ass PC. Not to mention the board games and tabletop RPGs. I flit from platform to another, but most people aren’t like me.
So here’s my question to you: Why’d you make your choice?
So we’ve been continuing the battle of the the better meal at my house, and so far we only have one major hold out — our ‘problem’ player who only plays sociopaths and installs and plays games while we’re around the gaming table and almost never arrives on time for anything (which is a big problem when he’s driving other players).
It seems that sending out an email a day before announcing what food we’re making and leaving it at that has gotten most of of them on board. Several have asked for use of the kitchen to start making food as well, and in two weeks one of our players will be making dinner with my blessing in my kitchen. Two others have volunteered, and we’re working on a potluck style dinner every two weeks.
I’m hoping this will stick, as well as make them feel ‘invested’ as opposed to being ‘mothered’. Either way, I’m pleased with the step in the right direction. The last two games we’ve done well– two weeks ago there were no left overs, and last night the root vegetable and beef stew that was prepared got rave reviews from our gaming group (the meat was so tender it fell apart in the pot!) and made me bless my crock pot… I look forward to eating the leftovers tomorrow at work for lunch!
As any gamer knows, discussing our passion around people who have no idea of the themes or games we play, can be a funny or potentially offending experience. For me, at work, it can often be rather hilarious. I work in the US Federal Government circles, where it’s easy to assume a lack of odd. In actuality, things like the following happen.
I’ve been roleplaying a MUSH that is of the Amber genre, with its multi-worlds concept. It is mainly, in Amber, a medieval theme with some constraints on the laws of physics and magic. My character is in the midst of plotting the assassination of another character who is mystical and potentially dangerous. I’d just had another character pretty much tip off my plans in a public in-character setting, and was in a bit of a bind about how to proceed with the killing.
Naturally, I turned to my usual lunchtime work crowd. Names have been changed to protect the strange.
My friend, Julia, is into World of Warcraft, and is no stranger to the games I play. She is rather avid in hearing about how I manage to even survive in-character, so I began running the problem past her at lunch. Joe, who works in counter-narcotics, Freida, another computer support person, and Adella, an FBI agent, all began listening in in wonder as I described possibly needing to “use the troops I have to take out their Embassy.”
I know, right?
Some people need a lot of explaining to put such comments and enthusiastic planning to kill someone in the proper perspective. Gamers, I think, tend to talk to other gamers in the same language, assuming the other has the proper basis of knowledge and they just run with it. Mundanes listening in have no context. I run into the same problem with the IT world; two techs talking about computers sound about as comprehensible to non-computer people as dolphins clicking away nearby. It also isn’t as if gamers add qualifiers a lot as we talk. We don’t say “so on the game I…”, we roll on with “So I drew my sword and sliced his head off.” When one comments to a guild mate in the crowded elevator “thanks for helping me gack that demon last night”, it should not draw undue staring. Surely it’s obvious we don’t mean really real. Right?
Surprisingly, the onlookers copped onto what was going on and got pretty enthusiastic, once I’d outlined the problem to them. They’re a very sharp group, with a lot of experience and interests to draw from, just the sort of people you’d feel safe steering your country’s foreign policy.
Joe: Can’t you just catapult a cow into their well?
Me: I don’t have time to start a plague.
Joe: How about rats?
Freida: On fire. Wait, how was the plague started?
Adella and Joe: Fleas on rats.
Joe: Napalm rats, on fire. Very classy and effective.
Freida: Can’t you send in a woman and lure him out of the castle and then kill him?
Me: He knows I’m coming, so I don’t know that he’d trot out after a chick, knowing I’m out there to cut his head off.
Freida: Maybe if she had really big boobies?
Joe: I think we’re definitely onto something with the rats.
A Marine who sits down about then: What are you people talking about?
Joe: Ann needs to kill a magic guy in a hurry.
Adella: It’s for a game.
Marine: This is out of my depth.
The rats solution was popular, even if it wouldn’t work on the game. Eventually, it was agreed that if rats, on fire, were going to be flung through the air, then the soundtrack should definitely be Wagner. I did actually get a decent plan to proceed with the plot from the discussion, but mostly from Julia, the other gamer.
I really do think the mundanes exceeded the weirdness of anything I could have done just talking about gaming in front of them. The whole discussion makes me wonder about running a game with them. Anyone else ever sprung gaming on the unsuspecting, especially at work?