Category: Book Reviews

Mutant Year Zero – probably no happy ever after?

Every now and again, in amongst the dozens and dozens of games that I get to look at I find something that really piques my interest, something that is suitably familiar or perhaps very different.  Every now and again there is a game that I really want to play, or more likely that I really want to run.

Mutant Year Zero is definitely one of those games.

YearZero_coverIn fact, it is both familiar and yet different.  The familiarity comes from the simple nature of the mechanics.  It’s a little bit old school; simple archetypes with a point building system for character creation.  The numbers are simple to handle, skill levels, attributes and gear denote the number of d6 you roll for success.  And for that reason it’s a comfortable system to learn, it takes minutes not hours to pick up the rules and generate your first character.

But then, it’s also sufficiently different and innovative. Your character is a mutant and it is the mutant powers that will most likely keep her alive in the very hostile post-apocalyptic world of Mutant Year Zero.  But then, using those powers has a cost and one that will slowly but surely cause you to degenerate and die. Along the way you’ll become more powerful as your body continues to mutate, and this will kill you – if the environment, the deadly Rot, the others struggling to survive in this world don’t get you first.

For me another huge part of this game is its collaborative nature – your best chance of survival is with others by your side.  For that reason, character creation includes detailing relationships with the other player characters and also with significant NPC’s.  There is a strong community focus, you have grown up in an Ark – a refuge from the hazards outside.  You contribute to the development of the Ark, you have a role to play in its society and in decisions that shape how it grows.

I almost passed this game by, there are so many post-apocalyptic survival games and I was suspicious of the fact that you can buy custom d6’s with symbols instead of the 1’s and 6’s.  There is also a deck of cards which are referred to in the rules, and I’m always sceptical of games that “need” these little extra expensive goodies to work properly.  But whilst having played with them I would recommend the extras (especially the dice), you don’t need them, after all they are just d6’s and everything in the card decks can be found as tables and descriptions in the core book.  They are enhancements, not essentials.

I’ve played a few standalone games, (and I’ll be running one at this years ReuniCon RPG Day in Brighton on the 3rd September), and they work really well, but I think the real beauty of this game would be in playing an extended campaign watching the character’s stories unfold as they pursue their big dreams, as they develop their community and as they finally succumb to the inevitability of the environment.  This is a very story led game, there is an overarching metaplot detailed within the core book and it is up to the GM as to how much this plays into their specific game.

What will be important is survival, the need to eat and drink regularly, to track your bullets (not just for your weapons but as currency), to look after your health and to balance the use of your mutant powers, the need to “push” your dice rolls against the ongoing impact to and deterioration of your character.

One last thing that I think is worth a mention is the use of maps – not for the purpose of miniatures or pseudo-wargaming, but for discovering, recording and detailing the player’s environment.  You’ll start the game with a mostly empty Zone map – there are two provided with the setting, but you might find it interesting to create your own based on your home town or a favourite place.  My games have focussed on Brighton, the Palace pier partially collapsed and become the Ark for my adventurers, a defensible sprawl with a population of around 200.  The coastline, the towns, cities and the south downs have become the areas to explore and with rumours of a larger city – The Big Smoke – even further North across the Infected Rot lands.  Players will note points of interest scribble notes on the maps, share them with other explorers, discovering and creating their game world as they go.

Mutant Year Zero is a great game, it is balanced and intriguing, it makes for good story led collaborative roleplaying.  It will appeal across the age ranges and is accessible to both new and experienced players.  The core book runs to around 280 pages and the production values are also very high, the quality of the artwork, the comic book styling also makes you want to read it.

Available from the Modiphius store for £34.99 in Print/PDF or £14.99 for the PDF.

Lankhmar: City of Thieves

Back in 1985 TSR published a sourcebook for AD&D that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on, Lankhmar: City of Adventure.  At the time it was something really quite different.  At the time almost all published AD&D game material was set to take place in caverns, dungeons and the wilderness, with the Lankhmar source book your characters took a step into a new world of intrigue and adventure.

Now skip forward thirty years to 2015 and once again a Lankhmar sourcebook appears on our, now virtual, bookshelves.  New from Pinnacle Entertainment Group comes Lankhmar: City of Thieves. This all-new sourcebook for Savage Worlds contains details on the world of Nehwon and the City of Lankhmar, including Setting Rules, Savage Tales, monsters and foes, and persons of wide renown—including Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, and their sorcerous sponsors.

Lankhmar: City of ThievesI have often wondered why no-one had revisited the worlds of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser for source material.  I grew up reading Leiber’s stories of this unlikely pair.  I was drawn to their almost anti-heroic nature, they were drunks, they were shameless thieves proud of their skills,  they had character flaws a plenty.  Yet to me they were  a breath of fresh air and a break from the all too good fantasy heroes of the time such as Conan or even Tarzan.  The seven books containing containing the bulk of the tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (Swords of Deviltry, Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist, Swords Against Wizardry, Swords of Lankhmar, Swords and Ice Magic, and finally The Knight and Knave of Swords) remain among my favorites and when I look back the influence that Lovecraft had on Leiber now comes as no surprise to me, although it was many years after I discovered Leiber that Lovecraft began whispering in my ear.

The book from Pinnacle happens to be almost identical in page count with TSR’s earlier offering, but I can assure you that is where the similarities end.  Whilst the TSR campaign book devoted many pages to excerpts and summaries of the tales of Lankhmar Pinnacle do no such thing, the focus of their book is much more on how to play a game in that world and to adapt the Savage Worlds system to bring to life the characters and setting of Lankhmar.  As you would expect it covers what you need to know in order to create meaningful characters for the genre.  It includes details of Races (including Ghouls and Ratlings), Traits, new Hinderances and Edges, Equipment and provides a more than sufficient amount of background for the setting.

The magic system presented in Lankhmar: City of Thieves has been heavily modified to fit the style described by Leiber in his books.  This includes two new Arcane Backgrounds which are meant to replace those from the core books, there is also a strong ruleset for ritual magic which fits incredibly well with the dark, subtle and incredibly powerful magic in those original tales.

In the Gamesmasters section there are some 25 pages given over to detailing the setting, introducing key concepts such as the guilds of Lankhmar as well as physical geography, history and necessary background.  There are two Savage Tales to get you started with your adventures in Lankhmar and surrounding Newhon.  In the first tale “Tears of the Gods” a chance encounter with a drunken courier and the recovery of a mysterious bottle leads to adventure.  Whilst in “The Shrouded Corpse” the player characters are tasked with disposal of a body, a task which they soon discover isn’t as simple as it seemed and that very much puts them in peril.  Both of these tales are a good introduction to Lankhmar and to the intrigue and danger that players can expect.

In truth I think Pinnacles book with less page space given over to regurgitating the stories that Leiber wrote actually gives you more material with which to create your own, story driven roleplaying adventures in Lankhmar: City of Thieves.  The book delivers what you need to play games set in an interesting and very different setting. It might make you want to read Leiber’s stories, but won’t turn doing so into a necessary chore.

Also currently available for pre-order is a  detailed map of the city of Lankhmar, the center of the world of Nehwon and likely home to your Lankhmar game.  The map is double sided and the flip side features the world of Nehwon as Leiber described it, from the lands of the East to the Steppes of the Mingols, from the Inner Sea to the Parched Mountains.  The double-sided poster map (24” x 30”) has a coating that is wet, dry, and permanent marker erasable.  As the physical product is only available for preorder we have not had a chance to take a proper look at it, however both maps are available as pdf downloads from DriveThruRPG and the cartography is pleasing although I was slightly disappointed that it was only a general map of the city and did not (as in TSR’s 1985 publication) break out the various districts into more detailed maps providing more than just an enlargement of the map given in the sourcebook.  That said it is still a thing of beauty and I am sure would look great gracing the gaming table.

To summarise this ramble through Lankhmar: City of Thieves, the sourcebook provides something different, it pays appropriate homage to among the best classic fantasy of the 20th century in a way that is practical and playable.  In short we like this a lot and hope that it reaches as wide an audience as it deserves.  If in doing so it introduces some new readers to the classic stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser then that can only be a bonus.

Lankhmar: City of Thieves

A footnote: Leiber and Lovecraft.

Fritz Leiber’s first stories were clearly inspired by H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and letters between the pair clearly show that encouragement from Lovecraft during 1936 was instrumental in Leiber’s decision to pursue a literary career. After Lovecraft’s death Leiber wrote several essays on the great man some of which are believed to be pivotal in driving the serious critical appreciation of Lovecraft’s life and work.

“The mystery of the black outer gulfs, and of the deepest cognitive processes within us, must always remain unplumbed – and against these imagination must always frantically pound.”

From a letter to Fritz Leiber by Lovecraft – December 19th, 1936.

A Cat out Of Hell & The Secrets Of Cats

51dm-e4Io1LNot long  ago I really enjoyed reading “Cat Out Of Hell” by Lynne Truss, published by Hammer – (Working in association with Hammer Films, Hammer publishes compelling and intelligent horror in the form of film tie-ins, backlist classics re-imagined to bring them to a whole new market with a modern and sophisticated twist, and new novellas by established authors).

“Cat Out Of Hell” is essentially a tale about the true nature of cats the publishers blurb describes it as “mesmerising tale of a cat with nine lives, and a relationship as ancient as time itself and just as powerful”.  I’d say that the story goes a long way to explaining why a dog looks at you as though it loves you and a cat looks at you as though you are a particularly pathetic example of your species.  Anyway as is always the case, when I read a new book that I like I can’t help but think that there is inevitably a roleplaying game in there somewhere.

“The scene: a cottage on the coast on a windy evening. Inside, a room with curtains drawn. Tea has just been made. A kettle still steams.

Under a pool of yellow light, two figures face each other across a kitchen table. A man and a cat.

The story about to be related is so unusual yet so terrifyingly plausible that it demands to be told in a single sitting.

The man clears his throat, and leans forward, expectant.

‘Shall we begin?’ says the cat …”

Well clearly I’m not the only person who thinks that sentient, magic cats are a good candidate for a roleplaying game.  The good guys over at Evil Hat, the driving force behind FATE, have released  “The Secrets Of Cats” which is an excellent product made possible by their Patreon Campaign (read about that here).

The Secrets Of Cats“The Secrets Of Cats” is available as a PDF from DriveThruRPG, currently as a Pay What You Want title and it is based on the premise that Cats are magical creatures whose duty it is to protect their poor, vulnerable humans—whom they call Burdens—from the many threats that lurk in the night.

“Cats are magical; they understand sacrifice and the power of names. A decapitated mouse left on the doorstep or pillow is a powerful ward, and a spell wailed by the cat chorus confers even greater protection. When evil is on the rise and the safety of the neighbourhood is at stake the Parliament of Cats is there to stand firm against the darkness.”

The book itself runs to around fifty pages and is split into five distinct parts: an introduction and background, character creation, a setting (the mining town of Silver Ford), a ready to play story and finally details of Complications and Threats for your cats to deal with.

The production values are as good as any that we have come too expect from Evil Hat.  In particular the artwork throughout the book is really good and gives a sense of context to the type of game lurking within.  Its style is reminiscent of Don Bluth animations such as “The Secret Of Nimh”, or “The Land Before Time”, in particular it put me in mind of “All Good Dogs Go To Heaven”.

The Silver Ford setting included in the book, is a sleepy tourist town near a played-out old silver mine, (sounds like an episode of “Scooby Doo”), is sufficiently well fleshed out to be of use for more than just the one included story and is carefully constructed to show you how to think about the setting for your own feline adventures.  The adventure “Black Silver” starts when kids messing around in the mine accidentally rouse an ancient evil on Halloween, and of course it falls to the secret and magical cats of the neighbourhood to protect their human burdens from the things that go bump and squish in the night.

I haven’t had a chance to play “The Secrets Of Cats” yet, but I will, and I know a ton of cat lovers that will really enjoy the game.  It has appeal for gamers of all ages and the potential for some real good family fun.  So for the sake of a Pay What You Want donation we would gladly recommend you take a look at “The Secrets Of Cats”.

Sharpen your claws and prepare to defend your territory!

Ray Douglas Bradbury (1920 – 2012)

I couldn’t let the week pass without noting the passing of Ray Bradbury, who died this week aged 91.  Although I am sure it is Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes for which he will be mostly remembered in the press, it was his short stories that always captured my imagination, significantly his series The Martian Chronicles.

Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Illinois and although he graduated from high school in 1938 he never went on to college.  He became a full time writer in 1943 and he wrote numerous short stories, publishing his first collection Dark Carnival in 1947.  By 2010 there were a back catalogue of over seventy anthologies containing his work, including collaborations Weird Tales - The October Gamewith other celebrated authors including Fever Dream and Other Fantasies published with Robert Bloch in 1970.

Like Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury’s early stories graced the pages of Weird Tales magazine and he also eschewed the clichéd ghost story and stock monsters of the time.  Bradbury produced true weird fiction, thought provoking and intelligent.  Not afraid to tackle sensitive issues; he wrote about bystanders rubbernecking at traffic accidents in his short story The Crowd and was not afraid to tackle racism and sport in his tale The Big Black and White Game.

Ray Bradbury was also highly successful in his writing for Radio and Television and for film adaptions of his work.  Most notably the 1966 film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 by director Francois Truffaut and starring Julie Christie.  And whilst I may have fond memories of it, I understand that Bradbury himself was never happy with the 1980 TV adaptation of The Martian Chronicles which starred Rock Hudson in the lead role. Other novels and stories also have been adapted to film and television, as well as for radio, theatre and comic books. Bradbury has written episodes for Alfred Hitchcock’s TV series, as well as for many other TV productions.

Often lauded as one of the most accomplished science fiction authors of the 20th century and a prophetic visionary, he was once quoted as saying of Fahrenheit 451, “I wasn’t trying to predict the future. I was trying to prevent it.”

A digital copy of The Martian Chronicles is attached on a mini-DVD to the deck of the Mars Phoenix Lander, launched in 2007 and now sitting proudly on the red planet itself.

Ray Douglas Bradbury (1920 – 2012).

Hardboiled Cthulhu

Hard Boiled Cthulhu: Two Fisted Tales of Tentacled Terror,  is an anthology of short stories wherein the Lovecraft mythos meets film noir; the Call of Cthulhu meets The Big Sleep.  It’s a great idea as this is such an excellent setting for such tales, often overlooked both in fiction and in the COC role play game.  The book contains twenty-one contributions by a wide range of writers all of whom have a passion for Lovecraft’s creations.  With a few exceptions this is the only time they have been available in print.

The book itself is some 330 pages and contains the following;

Sleeping with the Fishes (Poem) — James Ambuehl
The Pisces Club — James Ambuehl
A Change of Life — William Jones
Ache — David Witteveen
A Dangerous High — E. P. Berglund
A Little Job in Arkham — John Sunseri
Day of Iniquity — Steven L. Shrewsbury
Eldritch Fellas — Tim Curran
Outside Looking In — David Conyers
Pazuzu’s Children — Jeffrey Thomas
The Devil In You — Eric J. Millar
The Mouth — William Meikle
The Questioning of the Azathonthian Priest — C. J. Henderson
Some Thought on the Problem of Order — Simon Bucher-Jones
The White Mountains — Jonathan Sharp
The Terror Came — Patrick Thomas
The Prying Investigations of Edwin M. Lillibridge — Robert M. Price
The Roaches in the Walls — James Chambers
To Skin a Dead Man — Cody Goodfellow
Unfinished Business — Ron Shiflet
The Watcher From the Grave — J. F. Gonzalez — Richard A. Lupoff

The book itself is a good quality paperback, glossy cover, nice paper, crisp print, in fact just what I have come to expect from Elder Sign Press.  As well as the stories themselves there are capsule biographies of each of the contributors.

The tales themselves are generally very good and in many ways they tick many of my boxes, some evoke a really good Lovecraftian atmosphere (In particular Robert M Prices contribution The Prying Investigations of Edwin M Lillibridge”). Some hit the mark in terms of story; I particularly enjoyed John Sunseri’s “A Little Job In Arkham” which has a little Oceans 11 feel to it, if you want to steal a priceless tome from Miskatonic Uni then you need the right group of thieves’.  A tale, well told with a good twist in the tale. I will certainly be on the lookout for more of Mr Sunseri’s work.

Of all the tales the only one that is somewhat out of place is Steven L Shrewsbury’s “Day of Iniquity” while a great read; it was definitely a good Sword & Sorcery tale, it was not really a detective type story by any stretch of my very elastic imagination. Basically a barbarian follower of Wotan leads his tribe to achieve vengeance on a dark cult.  What was this doing in this book?

For me however there are two highlights.  Richard A. Lupoff’s” is a cracking tale in which an enigmatic web site supplies vivid and dangerous dreams to its occasional customers. Whilst not as “hardboiled” as many of the tales and its Lovecraftian horror only becomes apparent in its closing stages, the feeling of good old “cosmic horror” will stay with you for some time after you finish reading.  

Finally, not everyone’s favourite I’m sure but “Eldritch Fellas” by Tim Curran is brilliant, I won’t spoil it for you by describing the story, but it is at heart a humorous tale which takes the hardboiled genre to its Cthulhian extreme where Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler and Tony Soprano all meet.  You will laugh out loud, even if it’s only at the fart jokes.  

In summary I think this is a great collection of stories, with something for everyone whether it is the genre, the Lovecraftian horror, the humor or the fact that you collection would be incomplete without it.  It was bought for me as a gift, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it as a read and it has left me with many ideas for evil to inflict upon my role play group to boot.

Go on click here and treat yourself!