Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Bureau 13: Stalking the Night Fantastic semi final draft

Bureau 13: Stalking the Night Fantastic

I was first introduced to this game about 8-10 years ago (don't remember exactly), when I was walking through my friendly local game store (unfortunately, now gone) and spied a cover in the unmistakeable style of Phil Foglio. After a brief flip through, I bought it and quite enjoyed it. The setting at least.

I'm writing a review now, well, for posterity's sake (though there is one in the archives), and because it does come up occasionally on the forums. And because there is now a compilation cd containing PDFs of all the B13 stuff (except the novels, those have just been reprinted through wildside press, though I don't have it, and it's a bit too rich for my blood (even if I could get PDFs to work on my computer...). At one time, I actually owned just about all the products for it, but foolishly traded them for either some magic beans, or some shadowrun stuff. But I picked up the rulebook again recently on ebay.

It apparently originally came out in 1981 or so, but the version I have is the revised, 1992 edition. So bear in mind, while the setting might seem somewhat derivative today, when it was originally released, it was not. (This game might even be the inspiration for the X-files, as the book uses that term, though in a different context. I'm not sure if the term existed before this, and you can't search the internet without being flooded with sites about the show, so I don't know how to find out).

The player characters are all agents of a super-secret government agency, called Bureau 13, which investigates and eliminates paranormal incidents and problems. Although an official government agency, it's even more classified than the NSA was, and so agents often have to break laws (though they have the means to pose as FBI agents). And besides really good fake IDs, the agency has all sorts of spy gizmos and gadgets.

This secrecy also extends to recruiting agents. And given the high attrition rate among B13 agents, the agency recruits from normal citizens that have had a brush with the supernatural and have survived.

The "iconic" B13 agent, that is the sample character, is Robert Harrison, a science fiction writer who happened to encounter a were-wolf at a convention, and brained it with a silver-plated award he had won. So, just about any sort of character concept is possible. Accountants, minor league baseball players, strippers, mailmen, are all characters I've had in some of my games, in addition to more normal investigative types (and the of course, the obligatory ninja).

It takes something of a kitchen sink approach to the paranormal/supernatural. Just about everything exists. Aliens, UFOs, Bigfeet, Angels, Demons, Vampires, Werewolves, Cubs Fans, Psychics, all sort of mythological beasties, and well, just about anything you can think of. And there is no one answer to any thing. For instance, there are several different types of aliens, zombies, vampires, etc. UFOs might be alien flying machines, traveller from the future, or they might be some sort of psychic phenomenon. It's really up in the air.

To a large extent, the GM is expected to come up with the specifics of the paranormal problem or incident or creature. There's fairly little actual background. Some NPCs and groups, then a listing of 100 specific supernatural problems or incidents, each with a very abreviated stat block and a paragraph or so of description. Basically adventure seeds, there's no real coherent metaplot or big secret enemy that B13 is up against. (Though the Bureau does have some enemies, and the novels might have something of a metaplot, but I don't know, not having read them).

To me, this was no problem, since I have dozens, if not hundreds of books on the paranormal lying around. But others might not be so familiar with it and be confused. To a certain extent, it's not meant to be a horror game, or conspiracy (though that can happen), so much as a paranormal game. That is, simply weird stuff. If you understand that, and understand the difference, then the setting works pretty well.

It's very funny. It's meant to be a serious RPG, and it is. But many of the examples are humorous. For instance, in the entry on vampires, we see vampire Vladimir Rabonowitz try to summon wolves to dispose of Robert Harrison, B13 agent. But instead of wolves, he ends up with 2 pit bulls and a poodle. Later on we see something involving Angus the Were-Squirrel. The interior art, while not by Phil Foglio, is also often in a similar tone, very silly.

So, I really love the setting. In fact, it's probably my favorite setting of any game, since it's so close to the real world, only slightly more interesting.

The system, however, has a lot of problems. While in the past, I've said it was unplayable, that's really not true and is unfair. It's not that bad, just quirky, too chart ridden, and has lots and lots of optional combat rules that look scary. Really scary.

It's something of a D&D variant. That is, it features several stats ranging from 3 to 18 or so, and it uses D&D's 6 stats, plus a few more. In this case, it's actually 4d6-4, giving a range of 0 to 20. The stats are Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Agility, Intelligence, Wisdom, Luck, Charisma, Accuracy, and Supernatural Sensitivity. There are also a couple derived stats, "Throw", which is the average of Strenth, Accuracy, and Dexterity, and Dodge, which is the average of Strength and Agility.

But wait, we're not quite done yet. There's also magic resistance, which is determined by rolling a d6 and multiplying by 10 (to give a percentage). Hit points, which is Strength plus twice the Constitution, plus a d10. There's also Piety, which in an interesting touch, is set by the player. So if you want to play a priest, you'd pick a high score, but if you want to play an athiest, you'd pick a low score. And Mental Stability, which is on par with Call of Cthulhu's sanity score, and is equal to the Constitution score plus Wisdom plus 50.

Perhaps forshadowing the d20 system, skills are rated from 0 to 20 or so. Except in this case, each skill rank is converted to a +5%. To suceed at a skill, it's like most d100 systems, the player must roll under his skill total on a d100. There are difficulty ratings, too, which can modify it, but these are not linear or obvious. You have to look them up on a table. For instance, a difficulty rating of 01 (or really easy) gives a +95 bonus. But a rating of 02 gives a +80 bonus. Seeing that a rating of 03 gives a bonus of +65, you might thing a pattern has emerged. But the rating of 04 gives a bonus of +35.). 07 is average with no modifier, and 13 being really hard, -95%.

So, not exactly an intuitive skill system. Though it is playable. But you really need refer to the difficulty chart all the time to convert from the rating to the actual modifier. I guess you memorize it after a while, but when I ran it, it was awfully clumsy. I really don't understand how this was preferable to just using percentages, for both skills & difficulty modifiers, rather than small numbers that are converted to percentages.

Characters also have levels, and start at 1st. For each level they go up, they get another d10 added to their hit points, and a d4 or so worth of skill ranks (I say or so, because there is a modifier, but it changes per level).

If that were it, it would a bit old fashioned, but okay. But the real problem lies in the combat system. In a 180 page book, the combat and damage rules are about 65 pages. Fair enough, combat is complicated, right? Well, it seems like that 65 is comprised mostly of charts.

To be fair, they did include a simple hp system. Weapons do so much damage, just subtract. So basically like D&D. The more complex system is almost unplayably complex, involving such things as hydrostatic shock and "E-Factor", which was apparently borrowed from The Morrow Project. Just thinking about it hurts. As I look through the charts, my eyes just roll.

Still, regardless of which damage system you use, the "to hit" portion is also not great. Physical combat starts off pretty easily, rolling a character's Dexterity score x 5 on a d100 to hit. Simply enough, but too stat dependant for my taste. Characters can learn martial arts, but that requires using a series of charts.

Gun combat uses a complete different system. As mentioned, B13 has an "Accuracy" stat. That is used in gun combat, and is the primary determination of whether someone hits or not with a shot.

The easy system is actually fairly easy, though it does require some multiplication/division. To see if you hit with a gun, you must roll under your Accuracy stat with a d20. The Accuracy stat is modified according to the shot difficulty. 1.25 for a "Shot You Can't Miss" to .25 for a "Ridiculous Shot" to .12 for a "Impossible Shot".

The realistic system works like the easy system, only instead of the rather fuzzily named multipliers, there are +/- modifiers to the accuracy score, which can be determined from various charts (size of target, range, speed, weapon quality). This would actually be easy, if you didn't have to use charts to determine these modifiers.

Of course, I really can't say I like the idea of Accuracy being a stat. I mean, is your ability to shoot an ingrained feature of you, or a skill that can be learned? Granted, it's something of a fuzzy area - some people are natural good shots. But much is also practice and something learned. Especially accuracy in combat itself.

There are also rules for psionics and magic. The psionics rules also happen to remind me of AD&D's. Basically, everyone has a chance of having psionic powers, and they roll on a d100 to see if they do. Rather than being determined by the mental attributes, like in AD&D, the chance depends on the character's parents and/or grandparents. Which seems incredibly arbitrary.

If a character does have Psi ability, they get two more stats - Working PSI, or WKP, and Mental Coordination, which is the average of Intelligence and Agility. There's a variety of psionic powers, pretty much the typical stuff. It works okay, but also uses a slightly different sort of skill system, this time it's a d100%, but slightly different modifiers than the normal skill system.

Magic actually works pretty much the same way. Only instead of Working Psi, there's Working Magic, or WKM. There's a fairly standard selection of spells - healing, mind reading, illusions, protection, etc. Also a fairly good section on demon summoning, which is also pretty funny. (Examples of Demon summoning include one for appliance repair, and another demon steals the tires from a B13 agent's car).

When I first got the game ages ago, I did try to run a few games, and played in a very early play by email game on AOL. But I found the system to just be a hassle. I'm sure once you get used to it, it can be playable, but for most people, it's probably a turn off. Almost like someone's really extensive house rules for D&D.

But because of that, the B13 system actually converts surprisingly well to d20. As a quick and dirty conversion, you can simply keep the 6 stats it shares with d20, and the skill ranks also convert on a 1 to 1 ratio. Same with hit points. Sure, it's not exact, but close enough that you can run B13 adventures without too much hassle.

Spycraft seems to be the ideal system, but while it has the nice combat rules and gadgets that fit B13 and Shadowforce Archer has some magic and Psi rules, it lacks the wide variety of non-spy character classes to fit B13 agents. So maybe OGL Horror would be a better fit. There may or may not be a d20 version of B13 coming out. At one time there were plans, but it's now somewhat vague.

Lichs (Final Draft)

Lords of the Night: Liches, is the second product from a small UK company Bottled Imp Games. It's a d20 sourcebook for Liches, and is the followup to last year's Lords of the Night: Vampires. Due to a variety of problems, this was massively delayed, almost 8-9 months after Vampires came out*.

Lords of the Night: Vampires is quite possibly my favorite d20 book. At least d20 sourcebook. But then I have a thing for vampires (I even liked the movie Underworld. Heck, right now, I'm listening to the Alucard mix of Robert Nickson's "Spiral", though other than the name, it has nothing to do with vampires).

But Liches, well, Liches just don't do much for me. I mean, when I think of vampires, after seeing Underworld, I now think of Kate Beckinsdale in a skintight outfit (though honestly, her face is the most stunning thing about her. Her voice isn't bad, either). When I think of Liches, well, it's more like Kate Moss in a skintight outfit. Ick. I mean, they're basically skeletons, with bits of flesh on their bodies, not very attractive (unless you're Johnny Depp, I guess).

Honestly, if LOTN: Vampires weren't so great, I probably would have passed on this. Except, I was interested in more of the Lords of the Night metaplot, and figured at the very least, it would have some info that would tie into the vampire book. I'm very glad I didn't pass on it - while it does have some tie in, it's also one brilliant book by itself. Even if you really don't like liches.

In the Lords of the Night universe (which is sort of a meta setting, that can be inserted into the background of your world), there seems to be two basic forces, that of creation or order, apparently called "The Arcane", and that of entropy, or the Void. Liches are largely servants of the Arcane. At least the ones in this book (Arcane Liches, or Liches, as opposed to liches). They turn themselves into liches because it's a way of transcending their living bodies. (Regular D&D liches are called mundane or necromatic liches, and are in this, copies of the proper Arcane Lich detailed in this book.)

Not really the "good" guys, so much as people more concerned with their own ends, which is their own power. The forces of the Void threaten them (the Void really are bad guys). While the book is a bit heavy on background material, it's pretty easy to ignore the Void vs. Arcane metaplot, and just concentrate on the Liches themselves. Generally speaking, the rules are pretty well separated from the plot stuff. Thankfully, there is a glossary/score-card early on to help you keep track of who is what and the terminology. (I also liked how the terminology has both words that people in a D&D universe would use, and proper names used by the Liches or Arcane themselves. Very clever).

Basically, Liches belong to a different order, and each have a different age or state of decay (the more dead, the more powerful, then they finally fade away. Like with rock stars). Death Touched, Living Dead, Sunken Lich, Necrotic Lich (this is when they start looking skeletal like, as opposed to just Keith Richards like), Skeletal Lich (now complete skeletons, no fleshy bits at all), and finally, Spectral Lich, who are complete disbodied (though they can possess people under some circumstance). Both the age state and order are handled by templates. Some might have prefered monster classes, but I think templates work the best, since it's not like the Liches will be changing the age state all that often.

The order the Lich belongs to can roughly be considered a clan or class, besides their abilities, it mostly determines where their interests. There's the Frost Lich, which really like cold weather. There's the Artifex Lich, who like golems and mechanical constructs.

There's two sorts of Lich that deals with the dead. One is a necromancer sort of a Lich (the Dirge Lich), while the other is a cleric sort of a Lich (The Mors Lich). The Darke Lich is a sneaky sort, they are spies and theives and rogues. The Umbral Lich is hard to describe, they are sort of puppeteers, they make creatures out of shadows. And there is the Prime Lich, who are

None of the Lich orders really appealed to me much, at least, if I were personally looking to become a Lich, I wouldn't want to join any of them. Stretching that to the mindset of the average player character, there are some that are somewhat appealing, but still, who would want to be a Frost Lich? Being cold sucks. There should be a Lich order that involves lying on a beach drinking some sort of fruity drink - that's what I find appealing. But then, like I said, I am not the sort that would want to become a lich.

Beyond the whole immortality thing, Liches gain several powers.

The most notable is "Arcana". Basically, they spend spell points to perform certain magical acts. The effects are basically like spells, though it can also create things (like golems) and emulate other special abilities (like turning other undead). There are 13 types of Minor Arcana, which any Lich can learn (and each of these have 6 different powers), and 1 Major Arcana for each order of Lich (though the can also learn ones of an order they aren't affiliated with, if they are granted permission and find a teacher).

Liches can also impose their will on the fabric of reality itself (this is called "Sorcerae"). And so, do just about anything they want. However, this is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, it's quite difficult. And it also poses some risks, from attracting followers of the void, to insanity.

All in all, the rules for Liches is quite extensive, and seem to work pretty good. I haven't playtested them extensively (enough to mark this is as playtest review), but I have played with them some, and they seem solid.

In fact, insanity is one of the main hazards of Lichdom. There are several categories they can pick up, with differing levels in each category. Some insanities are temporary, some are permanant. The latter case happens when a Lich jumps to a higher (or deader) state using a ritual, rather than evolving naturally, or when they really stretch their powers and it backfires.

The last third of the book or so details the city the Liches live in, Kethak, the City of Lost Souls. It's located on the plane of ash. Frankly, it's an overwhelming place. Reading about it gives me a feeling similar to what the Greeks must have felt when picturing Olympus.

It's located on the Plane of Ash (adjacent to the Plane of Cigarette Butts), a very inhospitable place to the living. I can't really do justice to the sights in the city, so I'll just give some of the names of places mentioned: The Bridge of Restless Dreams, The Gardens of Jaded Memory, Senetar Glacius, Aedes Singularis, the Ancora Cursus.

In D&D power terms, it makes Elinster, Drizzt and the Forgotten Realms look like wind-up monkeys playing in a cat's litterbox. Besides the high level Liches themselves, there is the Council of Wizards. Despite the name (which was apparently conferred on it by mortals), they are not wizards, but closer to gods. Except they're more powerful than gods. They were the first inhabitants of the universe, born moments after creation. Wisely, they are not statted.

Of course, they are not without their equals. In this case, the Dark Vertex. Who are actually the same sort of beings of the Council of Wizards (the Arcane), only devoted to the void.

The backstory is actually somewhat remninescent of Michael Moorcock's stuff, in that there are 3 major forces fighting for the fate of the universe. In his work, it was the forces of Law vs. Chaos. vs. the Balance (or Neutrality), which is where the standard D&D alignment comes from. In this, it's the forces of Creation (the Arcane) vs. Destruction (the Void) vs. Good (the Powers of Light, which will apparently be detailed in the 4th book from Bottled Imp, the next being a book on zombies).

It's a very beautiful book. Almost a bit too beautiful in the case of the font used. While it's easy to read, the capital letter used is much larger than the regular letters. This becomes a problem at times because there are a lot of proper names in the book. "Arcane", "Spectral", "Lich", etc.

The art is absolutely fantastic. Admittedly, I never thought of liches wearing top hats. But it really really works. Now I can't imagine a lich wearing anything else (I do like that lich wearing lots and lots of gold chains on the Lost City of Barakus cover, from Necromancer Games, but clearly it's a Mr. T reference, and not a dress code something most liches follow).

This is really a wonderful book. Much like Lords of the Night: Vampires, it has a certain magic to it. The sheer imagination of it is astounding, especially the part on Kethak, the City of Lost Souls - every page drips with marvels and amazements. In a way, it returns to the game the awe and majesty that was in D&D in the very early days - the sort of thing you'd feel when you'd look at the cover of the DMG, and see the City of Brass and the giant Efreet.

For some, there might be too much background material. I'm not sure how much of the background I'll actually use, other than for sight-seeing purposes (so to speak). But it's a joy to read, the metaplot can be ignored easily, and the book is chock full of crunchy stuff. And indeed, the book has little to no padding or white space, so it's a very good value.

So, if you want a book on liches, this is quite a novel take on them. If you want an RPG book to just read and wonder over, this is also great. If you're looking for a more standard D&D take on the lich, this might not be for you. But even then, you could probably ignore the metaplot, and still just use crunchy bits. I still like Lords of the Night: Vampires better, but this is a very solid follow up (and better style-wise). A+

* Which to a degree actually mirrored my problems getting this book - I ordered one back in January from a dealer I never tried before, and after months of waiting, it never showed up. So I had to order one from FRPGames, a much more reliable dealer (and it was sent to me promptly). Stupid me for trying to save a $1. Though I imagine I had much less trouble than Bottled Imp, so I can't feel too bad. But this is one of those cases where the anticipation wasn't better than the result.