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From the Basement: Castle Falkenstein

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Hussars in dashing uniforms, swords always ready to duel over an affaire d’honneur; dainty noblewomen in proper décolletage with tiny pistols hidden in their petticoats; enchanting faerie lords seeking the excitement of love among mortal passions; stalwart dwarven craftsmen seeking that great masterwork that will earn them their second name; willowy tall, cat-eyed dragon lords, resplendent in silk robes from far Cathay…

These are staples of R. Talsorian‘s Castle Falkenstein, an RPG set in a Gilded Age that never was.  Here you can step back into an alternate version of the Victorian age where magick works side-by-side steam technology and faerie lords rub shoulders with both real and fictional characters from that era. What other game could see your character having High Tea with both Dr. Jules Verne (France’s Science Minister) and Captain Nemo? Or solve mysteries with a still little-known Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Steampunk only begins to describe the setting of this game.

The first almost three-quarters of the full-color rulebook immerses you in the world of Castle Falkenstein, via a story narrated by Tom Olam, a computer game artist who finds himself spellnapped into an alternate history version of Victorian Europe, called New Europa. The story is entertaining and makes a good introduction to all things Falkenstein. In addition to describing the politics, history and geography of New Europa (which differ fair amount from our own European history), he gives you an introduction to important NPCs, magick and techology, as well as glimpses of society and the rules that govern it. And does it in a way that makes it very accessible and far more entertaining than most settings rather dry description of details.

Character Creation

In Castle Falkenstein you create a Dramatic Character, which can be anything that would fit into a Victorian setting, and then some. You can play anyone from an anarchist, to a nobleman, adventuress, explorer,  scientist, or writer. You’ll want to be careful to create a character that has a reason for exploring the unknown and participating in Great Adventures, though, because it would be to create a character extremely appropriate to the setting, but who has no reason to venture beyond his or her drawing room. If a more exotic character is to your taste, with your Host’s (the game’s term for GM) permission, you could play a member of one of the fey courts, a dwarf, a sorcerer, or even a dragon.

No need to track down fancy character sheets here; your Dramatic Character is described in words, rather than numbers.  The game suggests you write your character’s backstory before you worry about mechanics. You’re expected to keep a character Diary, a “logbook of the Character’s lives and times in the world of the Steam Age, a storybook in which he or she is the Main Character,” (pg. 154). This can be daunting to players without a writing bent, but the book tries to make it easier by giving you a list of questions to answer in your Diary. By the time you’ve worked your way through the list, you should have pretty good handle on your character concept.

After that, you go on describe your character, both in looks and in abilities. You also need to chose a Grand Passion ( something your character would pursue above all things), a Nemesis (something (s)he  battles, such as a sworn enemy), and a Goal (something (s)he strives for). Finally, you choose three goals: one Social, one Professional, one Avocational.

The actual mechanics of character creation take up less than half a page and involve picking abilities that your character is Great, Good, and Poor at (these are official game terms). Any other ability you haven’t named is considered to be Average, the default level. The abilities are divided into groups that correspond to playing card suits. And that leads us to the…

Mechanics

Because no respectable Victorian Age person would ever play at dice, the game uses playing cards to resolve combat and skill challenges. You’ll need two complete decks (including Jokers) of regular playing cards. One is the Fortune Deck, the other is the Sorcery Deck, so the two should be easy to tell apart.

Each player begins the game with a Fortune Hand of four cards. Players play cards to increase their chances of succeeding at any particular action (called “Feats” within the game). The process goes like this:

  1. The player describes what her character is trying to do. The more vivid the description, the better the Host can resolve the Feat.
  2. Next the player decides what ability she’ll need to use to perform the Feat (with Host’s approval). If the Feat calls for an ability her character doesn’t have, she uses that ability at Average level, with some exceptions. For example, if the PC is trying to fly a airship, the Host may decide that she can’t fly it without some kind of Piloting ability.
  3. Every ability level has a point value from 2 (Poor) to 12 (Extraordinary), with Average being 4. The player then chooses one or more cards who’s total is added to the ability score. But there’s a catch: if the card used is of the same suit as the ability, the card is worth its face value. If it’s of a different suit, it’s only worth one point. Jacks, Queens, and Kings are worth 11, 12, and 13, respectively.
  4. The Host decides the Ability Level needed for the character to succeed at that Feat, plus he can play cards from his own hand to represent situational modifiers. This creates basically a difficulty level that the player has to beat.
  5. If the PC’s total is less than half the Feat’s total, it results in a Fumble. If it’s less than the Feat total, but more than half of it, the Feat simply Fails. If the PC’s total is equal to or greater than the Feat’s total, it’s a Partial Success. And if it’s equal or greater to half again the total, it’s a Full Success. Finally, if the total is equal to or greater than twice the Feat’s total, it’s a High Success and the Host describes what happens in each case.

The cards of a Fortune Hand can’t be discarded–they have to be used in a Feat to get rid of them.  Once cards are used, they’re immediately shuffled back into the Fortune Deck and the Host deals the player new cards to replace those used.This system allows for some strategy when it comes to resolving Feats, which is great for players with really bad dice luck.

The combat system is basically a series of contested Feats and I won’t go into it or the Sorcery mechanics here. The mechanics may feel a little weird at first, but are easy to catch onto once you’ve been through them a couple of times.

Where to Get It

As far as I can tell, the core book is out of print, as are most of it’s supplements. Used copies are going for $50 on Amazon, but you can get PDF versions of the core rules and all six of it’s supplements from DriveThru RPG at $16 for the core rules and $8.50-$10.00 each for the supplements.

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Need RPG News? Check Out Game Knight Reviews

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This is the first of a new post series where talk about my favorite RPG blogs and sites. There’s no particular significance to the order I review things — it’s more of a “who’s on my mind right now”. And these aren’t intended to be reviews, per se–I’m not going to critique the sites. It’s much more like the old Pyramid Magazine’s “Gee, we wish we’d done that” column, for those of you who’ve been gaming long enough to remember Pyramid when it was available in print.

Today’s site is Game Knight Reviews. As you can guess by the name, this site focuses on reviews of game products. From print to e-books to game-related services, if you’re wondering about a specific product, you can probably find a review of it at GKR. If it’s not up yet, it will be sometime. In addition to game reviews, though, they have interviews with prominent members of the RPG community and (my favorite bits) news from the RPG world. It’s really nice to have game news gathered into a single source, since I simply don’t have time to read tons of the wonderful blogs out there, much as I’d like to.

Oh, and did I mention they’ve got some pretty cool art on their header graphic? [Hopefully Fitz won’t mind that I also stole his logo for this post…]

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Bringing Home the Gold: Review of Gold Strike! Adventure

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Abandoned gold mines. Orc raiders. Cave-ins and a dark, mysterious past. Gold Strike! the winner of 6d6 Fireball‘s Autumn Adventure Writing Competition brings us that and more.

This d20/D&D 3.x adventure sends three to five 4th – 6th level characters down an abandoned gold mine to rescue a group of miners trapped by a cave-in. But as is often the case with adventures, things are not completely what they seem. I’m going to do my best to review this without giving spoilers. This review is based on a playtest my group and I did of the adventure.

The Good

The setting of the adventure is one I don’t see used a lot in fantasy adventures — a mine cave-in. Much of the challenge of the adventure comes from being in an unstable and very deep cave environment. This was a refreshing change from fighting drow and deep cave monsters. The monster encounters that adventure did have were, on the whole, appropriately challenging and made sense.

I give big kudos to the person who designed the layout of the PDF. It may seem a minor thing, but this is the first adventure I’ve run in a quite a while where I didn’t spend half the gaming time flipping pages to reference on thing or another. I loved having the little maps next to the descriptions of an area.

The side notes listing the skill checks needed for any particular event were a real help, as were having the encounter tables in the adventure’s margin. The wide left margin also gave me plenty of room to write corrections and notes. The layout was so helpful, I’ll be looking for other adventures published by 6d6 Fireball on the basis of that alone. And the addition of core book page numbers for monsters, treasure, and other things the DM might want to reference is a very welcome addition.

The Bad

The names. While the NPCs are well-suited to the adventure, my group had a field day with their names. Even I had a hard time saying some of them with a straight face. “Junior” was fine, if a bit odd in a fantasy setting. “Jumpy” and “Furd” were harder, but even I lost it when it came to “Bark”, “Mourne”, and “Bonksi”.

Also, some class or skill suggestions would’ve been nice in the GM notes. The play test party consisted of a rogue, a barbarian/fighter, and a warlock, all non-dwarves and all 5th level. Not a survival skill among them and the party should have either a dwarf or someone skilled with either dungeoneering or underground survival. And some check DCs seemed rather high. At one point, the PCs are asked to make a DC 2 4 Survival check, which seems a little high for 4-6th level characters.

The adventure could also use some more consistency checking. At one point the PCs approach a camp with the description “The fire you saw in the distance is hidden by the stone walls.” If it’s hidden by the walls, how can the PCs have seen it in the distance? At another point a tunnel is described as being 6′ high and 2′ wide, but further down, it’s described as being “less than 4′ tall.”

The point to remember here is that this is a playtest version of the adventure. It’s going to have inconsistencies and imbalances until playtesting is complete. There are quibbles, but no major flaws — there’s nothing in this adventure that couldn’t be cleaned up after a few rounds of playtesting.

The Ugly — not!

On the whole, I think this is a great adventure idea. Both my players and myself enjoyed the change of pace from the usual “fight monsters, steal treasure” underground adventures. While there are still some problems to be ironed out, they’re changes that can be easily made before the final version is printed. The sequence of events is interesting and logical.

The layout of the adventure itself is definitely not ugly. It’s one of the easiest adventure printings I’ve ever used, keeping page turning to a minimum, whether that’s in the adventure itself or in the core rulebooks.

On the whole, I recommend this adventure. Recongnize that it’s a playtest document and either make notes or tweak the adventure accordingly.

Oh, and be sure to brush up on multiple skill checks and survival skills before you go. 😉

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Taking the Initiative: Review of Paizo’s Combat Pad

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This review is part of the Game Cryer Holiday Gift Guide.

Running combat in d2o/3.x systems is no task for the faint-hearted. Multiple characters, each with their own initiative, spells, delayed actions, held actions, potions, magic items … whew! It’s a lot to keep track of and it’s easy to forget who goes after whom … oh, and when does that spell take affect, again? No wonder so many GMs resort to laptops to keep track of who’s doing what and when.

What is it?

paizo-combat-padBut what about those of us without laptops? Luckily, Paizo.com has a solution for us, too. Called their “Combat Pad“, this sturdy magnetic board takes much of the drudgery out of keeping track of combat. Individual magnets allow you to write the names of the PCs, NPCs and monsters in dry or wet-erase pen. You can also take notes directly on the board itself and there’s a large space on provided to do just that.

The center “column” is numbered down the side allowingyou to place character/monster magnets near the number corresponding to each N/PC’s initiative roll. Is one PC readying or holding an action? Just move his magnet to the appropritate column on the right-hand side. Then once the character uses his held action, just move his magnet to the new initiative order number. No more “When did you come in last round?”

The line of numbers across the top allows you to keep track of what round you’re currently in. I also use it to note what round a spell goes off and what round it finishes. After many years of trying to keep track of it in my head or on scraps of paper, this is a very welcome addition to the product.

What’s so good about it?

First of all, large notes section. It allows me to track hit points as well as combat rounds. Secondly, the rounds tracker, which I mentioned above. The fact that it’s magnetic means I don’t have to worry if the cat decides to take a short-cut across my notes during combat.

I generally use wet-erase markers (I’m always dragging my hand through what I write, so dry-erase for me ends up being one big blur) and both the magnets and the board come clean with a damp cloth or paper towel. And when I say clean, I mean clean. No color residue left. The different colors of magnets — blue for PCs, green for NPCs and black for monsters — makes it easy to tell at a glance which you’re dealing with right now. The board comes with a good number of magnets, but if you lose some or find you need more, Paizo offers an extra magnet pack.

I also like the size. While a larger board would allow for more notes, the current 81/2″ x 11″ fits easily into my game notebook. Which means I can carry it with me wherever I’m running. A big bonus, since our group tends to rotate hosting the game. And it works for more than d20; I’ve used it with my Vampire: the Masquerade game with the same success.

The price tag for this product — $16.95 — is very reasonable. The extra magnet pack is $7.95. It’s a great gift for that special GM.

Check Out Protodimension Magazine

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I stumbled across this ‘zine while checking out my stats. They did a very nice write-up of my adventure creation with the 6 W’s post (Thanks!). If you’re looking for all things conspiracy-related, this ‘zine is a must. I love playing with conspiracies (probably too much for my players’ own good 😉 ) and I’ll definitely be using this as a resource. The magazine’s in full color and best of all — it’s free!

Product Review: Kobold Quarterly #11

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I thumbed through my advanced copy of KQ #11 (okay, since it’s a PDF, I didn’t exactly thumb — more paged down through) — the first issue of KQ I’d ever seen, and started to feel the excitement I used to have when looking through early issues of Dragon magazine.

15 articles (counting Maps and Free City), 9 of which I could immediately apply to my game and 5 more which, with some adjustments, could be adapted to fit my game. The visual layout of the magazine is minimalist — something I like very much. Color illustrations and splash graphics are nice to look at, but often eat up space in magazines I’d rather have taken up with ideas and text. KQ balances graphics and text well.

I particularly enjoyed Uvandir: The Pride of Craftsman — an alternate take on dwarves which seems to fit with the way I’ve been wanting to take dwarves in my own game world. Even as a veteran World of Darkness gamer, I was happy to see two articles reminding us that two favorite supernatural monsters (vampires and werewolves) are just that — monsters. It was a pleasant change from angsty soul-searching and eco-rage. I found the article on werewolves as PCs (Howling Werebeasts) especially helpful — full of great ideas on how to remind players that being a were is not like having a limited polymorph or shape-shifting ability. Were-creatures aren’t just powerful alternate forms — lycanthropy is a curse, first and foremost, and this article gave me some useful tips on how to bring that home to players.

The articles Running Across the Screen and Haunted by the Spirit of the Rules have good, solid advice on being a GM. The first one consists of interviews from industry designers on how to be a good GM, while the second reminds us that it’s the spirit of the rules that matters. I’d never thought of putting it that way before, but I’ll definitely be thinking about it the next time I have a rules-abusing player at my table.

I’d don’t play 4th ed, so I mostly skimmed the Wishing Well (an article about how to codify and use wishes in a game), but it did get my brain working on ways to structure the power of wishes in 3.x ed and other game systems. Whack Jacks and Harpy Nets got me thinking about how intelligent monsters would enhance their natural abilities with specially-designed weapons. I’m almost ashamed to admit that the idea never crossed my mind before I read this article.

Torture and Fear on the Tabletop puts teeth back in torture, creating ways to put the screws to (so to speak 😉 ) even characters with huge pools of hit points. Same Rules, Different Treasure gives ideas on how to make magic items interesting again with little to no modification of game mechanics. Philip Larwood, in Monstrous Paragons, discusses PC “monster” races for paragon-level characters. The article Mysteries of the Philosopher’s Stone, tells us how to use this real-world legendary item in fantasy games. While aimed specificially at D&D, the article does include some ideas (in a separate section of boxed text) for using it with Mage: the Ascension. I wouldn’ve like to see a bit on how to adapt it to Ars Magica along with the Mage data, but it’s a minor quibble and I can easily adapt the idea to  ArM by myself.I’ve often found myself less than enthused about rangers having the ability to cast spells. The Spell-less Ranger gives me the alternative I’ve been looking for.
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On the whole, I couldn’t be more pleased with this magazine. It’s been quite a while since I’ve gotten this many ideas out of a gaming mag. Please excuse me while I go subscribe and look up back issues.

Have you used any of the material from this or previous issues of Kolbold Quarterly? If so, please pass your experience on to us.

From the Basement: In Nomine

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Angels and demons. The core of In Nomine. If you’ve ever dreamt of playing one of the Heavenly Host or a Satan spawn from the depths of Hell, this is your game. Even if you haven’t, it’s still worth checking out. In Nomine ranks in the top five of my all-time favorite games.

In Nomine coverExcuse My French

In Nomine is based on a French game called In Nomine Satanis/Magna Veritas. But the American version, published by Steve Jackson, is no mere translation of the French game. The folks at SJGames made changes, making the game (according to them) more appealing to an American audience. I’d love to do a From the Basement coverage of the original French game; unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to get my hands on a copy. If anyone has one they’d like to sell…

God Does Not Does Play Dice With This Universe

One interesting thing about this game is its dice system. Like GURPS it uses d6’s, but that’s where the resemblance ends. In Nomine uses three six-sided dice, one of which should be a different color from the other two. The basic mechanics are straight-forward: roll two sixes and total them. Add in situational modifiers. If the resulting number is lower than the total of the character’s appropriate stat + skill score, you succeed. If it’s higher, you fail.

Then comes an interesting bit — you’re actually rolling all three d6’s. The third die isn’t added into your total — called the check digit, it indicates the degree of success or failure. A low result means a borderline success or failure, a high result means a particularly spectacular success or dismal failure. The GM interprets the check die to describe the results of your character’s actions.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. If you roll a natural result of 111 (a one on all three dice) or 666, things get really interesting. Called an intervention (DI — divine intervention — for short), a roll of 111 means God’s favor smiles upon you. Great if you’re playing an angel; not so good if you’re playing a demon. A roll of 666 means you’ve gained the personal attention of Down There.

Baby, You’ve Got Character

Character creation is simple and very quick. Groups I’ve played with have been able to finish character creation in under an hour, even if they’re new to the game. The steps are as follows:

  1. Find out from the GM if you’re playing angels or demons. You may be running a mixed party of both, but that works much better for one-shots than for on-going games.
  2. Choose a Choir (for angels) or Band (for demons). Each Choir/Band has different powers, called resonances. These range from always knowing if someone’s telling the truth (Seraphim, an angelic Choir) to being able to destroy things with your mind (Calabim, a demonic Band).
  3. Choose a superior — which archangel or demon prince do you serve? Your superior gives you further powers.
  4. Purchase levels of the three Forces, corresponding to body (Corporeal), mind (Ethereal), and spirit (Celestial). Depending on the type of character you’re playing, you have between five to nine Forces, which you can spread out as you please among the three types.
  5. The level of your Forces determine your characteristics (stats/attributs) scores. You’ve got six characteristics, two for each type of force: Strength and Agility (Corporeal), Intelligence and Precision (Ethereal), Will and Perception (Celestial).
  6. Purchase further powers and/or resources from a pool of points. Resources include skills, Songs (like spells), possessions, servants, extra bodies, etc…

Skills are broad and many of a character’s powers are determined by his Choir/Band and Superior. This leaves few choices for the player to make, which has its good points and bad points. On one hand, you can create characters very quickly; on the other hand … well, you have limited choices.

In the Mood

The In Nomine games I’ve played and ran tended to be rather tongue-in-cheek; the game lends itself to a light-hearted mood. But there’s no reason you couldn’t run a serious campaign. Like many games from the 90’s, the setting tends to be dark, even when it’s funny. For one thing, the angels of this game aren’t your fuffy, “sit on white clouds strumming harps” angels. Think Prophecy, rather than Touched by an Angel.

The quick character creation means that this game works as well as a series of one-shots as it does an on-going campaign. Given a fairly straight-forward objective, you can easily run an entire adventure in one evening, including character creation.

That’s All, Folks!

Steve Jackson Games — to the best of my knowledge — isn’t putting any more In Nomine material in print, but there’s been some support in the form of PDF material. You can find these at e23, including an introductory adventure called The Sorcerer’s Impediments. This PDF contains 4 pre-generated characters and all the mechanics you need to run the adventure, allowing you to try the game out for free.

If you’ve played In Nomine, please share your experiences, good and bad.

Just remember:

Angels always do more damage.

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From the Basement: Everyway

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I’m starting a new feature here in this blog. In “From the Basement” posts, I’m going to dig up an older game and review it. Today’s game is Everway.

Everway game box imageI have to admit, when it came out, I paid little attention to Everway. Everything I read and heard about it seemed to indicate it was a game slanted at new gamers and with 15 years of game experience under my belt at the time, why would I need a beginner’s game? Plus, with it’s box and cards it seemed … well … kitschy.  But when our local game store marked their copies down to $3 apiece, I bought a set … just for the collection, of course.

I don’t remember what prompted our group to try the game, but somehow I ended up volunteering to run a short-term campaign. That was when I fell in love with the game.  Everway is great system for groups who want story and character-focused games without a lot of pesky mechanics to get in the way.

Character Creation

Character creation begins with what the game calls “The Vision Stage” — where you come up with a character idea. Before you ever start filling in numbers, you decide who your character is. The game comes with several “vision cards” — fantasy art cards. You chose five of these that appeal to you and write your character around them. Then comes the “questions stage” where you present your five cards and basic character concept to the other players, who then ask you questions about him and the cards you’ve chosen to represent him.

Once you’ve got a basic concept of your character, you move on to the “identity stage”. At this point, you choose a name for your character and decide on a motive — the character’s reason for adventuring. After that, you chose three cards from the Fortune Deck — a deck of cards with a similar feel to tarot or other divination decks — describing your character’s virtue (a special talent, gift, or beneficial trait), fault (a weakness of flaw), and fate (an inner conflict your character has that will shape his destiny).

Only now in the creation process do you start figure numbers for your character.  Each character has four stats corresponding the four classical elements: earth, air, fire, water. Earth covers health, strength, endurance — a character’s physical traits. Air covers intelligence, wisdom, communication — a character’s mental abilities. Fire covers action, combat skills, speed. Water covers feeling, intuition, empathy. Stats are done with a simple point-buy system and each character gets one free special ability and you can spend more points to gain further powers, like the ability to use magic. The numbers stage of character creation tends to go very quickly, since players have already developed their character concept before even reaching this stage of creation.

I found this method of character creation very enjoyable. Frequently I tend to play the same type of character over and over no matter the game system or genre. But this method caused me to come up with a character I loved that was very different from my norm.

Mechanics

To say Everway is rules-light would be an understatement. The basic game mechanics are simple — you tell the GM what you want to do and the GM tells you what happens as a result. It’s a completely diceless system, in the tradition of Amber Diceless. If a GM is uncertain what the outcome of a character’s action should be, she can draw a card from the Fortune Deck and use it’s image or meaning (the game comes with a booklet describing the meaning of each of the Fortune Cards) to inspire her. The character’s stats are used as a rough guide to ability — if a character has a high Fire score, they’re much more likely to win a combat against a character with a low one, for example.

Overall Impressions

I enjoy this game very much. I found the visual input from both the vision cards and and the Fortune Deck helped me immensely when describing both setting and PC actions and outcomes. But it is very GM-dependent and requires a GM who’s comfortable running “off-the-cuff”. The players, too, need be flexible and willing to place the coutcome of their actions solely in the hands of the GM.

If you prefer a more structured gaming style, Everway is definitely not for you. Gamers who like “crunchy” systems will likely find this game a exercise in frustration and the lack of randomized outcome generation does eliminate luck as a factor. Generally, you’re not going to have the incredible successes and wild botches tha gaming stories are made of.

I’ve run Everway games for beginning as well as experienced players and it does make a good introduction to roleplaying game concepts. I wouldn’t recommend it for beginning GMs, however. Still, if you’re looking for a change in fantasy game, Everway could be just what you’re looking for.