Reading Svavelvinter by Tomas Härenstam and Thomas Johansson

Back in the 80ies, when Drakar & Demoner ruled the Swedish gaming scene, the Svavelvinter adventure took the scene by storm. Swedish gamers held it in very high regard, in a sort of a The Enemy Within kind of way. Years became decades, new but backwards incompatible versions of Drakar & Demoner were released, but Svavelvinter was still regarded as the high point in Swedish RPG history and commanded very high prices among collectors.

Recently the original author, Erik Granström, started releasing novels set in the Trakorien setting from his old adventure. And a few months ago I got the new Svavelvinter RPG in the mail. Let’s take a closer look.

The book
Svavelvinter (Eng. Sulphur Winter) is a 352 page hardcover tome in an unusual landscape format, about 22×27 cm. It is heavy, and the full colour pages fan considerably if the book is held vertically. The text is laid out in a two column format, with a very wide outside margin where sometimes an extra column of text is squeezed in. A whole group of artists have been enrolled to make the numerous illustrations throughout the book, but they have managed to keep a consistent style and feel.

The game is not a quick read, expect to spend many hours at even getting an overview. I wouldn’t be surprised if it would take days to read and learn ‘all of it’ before running a game.

The setting
Svavelvinter dedicates about 100 pages to describing the Trakorien archipelago and nearby lands in quite some detail, including several maps. It is a setting with a renaissance Italy feel, mixed with various bits and pieces taken from other historical periods and places, and Erik’s quirky imagination.

The rules and form
While I usually divide rules and form into separate sections I could not find a reasonable way to do so for Svavelvinter. They are intimately bound together, reinforcing each other.

Play happens at two levels, character level and shadow level. The character level play is what we usually associate with the story gaming style these days, separate but intertwining storylines about the main characters rather than a party of murder hobos travelling the land for loot and wenches. The shadow level is a boardgame played by the players, in which the powers that rule the setting compete for dominance in various areas.

Character generation is mechanically mostly limited to dividing points over the four stats; Fire, Wind, Water and Stone, and then selecting a few special abilities and the character’s goal, curse, destiny and relations. The character also has three experiences from the past, detailed with one sentence each.

Task resolution comes down to rolling pools of d6s based on the stat and a bunch of modifiers and counting 4+ results as successes, the more the better. If the roll is successful the player gains narration privileges to describe the outcome.

A single basic conflict resolution mechanism is used for everything from persuasion and pursuit to combat, albeit with a whole bunch of modifiers and special rules for every situation.

Character advancement is important. Every time one of the character’s past experiences is tagged in play to give a re-roll it is marked. When all experiences have been marked (and the character has completed an order from the shadow level of the game) the character gains a level. Levelling gives more abilities, but once the character reaches level 10 it must face it’s destiny and leave play.

The shadow level of the game is quite different, it is a board game where the players play one round at the start of every session. The events in the board game influence the character level play, giving depth and background. Every player’s PC stands under the influence of another player’s shadow power, which will give the PC orders and tasks (which when resolved enables the character to level as described above).

The game is run by a GM, but all the PCs and shadow powers are controlled by the players. The GM acts as a facilitator and arbitrator, and introduces events to colour play. Also every campaign is guided by a prophecy (8 pages of rules and tables for creating prohpecies!), the campaign ends when the prophecy has been fulfilled, at which time the players sum up their points from the shadow level board game and add their characters’ levels to find their score. This is a competitive RPG.

Conclusion
The setting is very good, lots of information and details.
The rules are excellent, they cover what the game is intended to do very well, and provide a framework for telling a very specific style of stories.
The form is excellent, the game provides great detail on how to play and run it, including an intro adventure.

Will I play it?
Yes, it seems like I will. A new group has been formed and it appears that we will rally around Svavelvinter as a common interest.

However, had I not had a group that specifically planned to play this particular game I’m not so certain. In spite of the very high grades above there are things that speak against the game.

First, it’s 350 very dense pages, without a clear flow through the text and actually learning this game is quite an undertaking when compared to the usual ~50 page games that I’ve gotten used to.

Second, the Trakorien setting is fantasy, but a very detailed and peculiar brand of fantasy. It may easily cause the same problems of mismatched expectations that occur when a group gathers to play StarWars and some players saw the original trilogy 20 years ago, and some have embraced the expanded universe stuff.

In my discussion on Fantasy! a while back I expressed fears that the game had failed to attract a following, but it seems I was wrong on that account. The initial 1000 print run had sold out, and Fria Ligan apparently has ha lively forum for the game on their own website.

frialigan.se/svavelvinter – The official Svavelvinter page.

sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svavelvinter – The Svavelvinter page on Swedish Wikipedia.

erik-granstrom.blogspot.se/ – The author Erik Granström’s blog.

Reading Null State – Ett actionrollspel om de som räddar världen av Mikael Bergström

I got Null State by Mikael Bergström at GothCon XXXV, signed and numbered. I have followed the development at a distance, but never quite understood what the central idea of the game was.

Null State cover

Null State cover


The book
Null State is 74 pages in a format that almost is A5, but a few millimeters short on the width. The text is single column, but large enough and surrounded by huge margins that makes it easy to read. It is a nice and quick read.

There are numerous illustrations by the author and Ronny Jacobsson, all very nice and they fit the gritty feel of the game well.

The setting
The world is constantly under threat of destruction from science gone wrong. The GM is recommended to use articles from popular science magazines as inspiration and background for adventures. The PCs are ordinary people (who might have some minor super powers) that have been recruited by an organization that calls itself Null State to put themselves in peril to save the world from those threats. Often on short notice, and with a high mortality rate among the PCs. It is assumed that the organization has other operatives nearby, so when a PC dies the player get back into the game as soon as he or she has built a new PC.

The game lists Global Frequency by Warren Ellis as one of the main inspirations. I have not read that book so I can’t say how close the game gets.

The rules
The rules are simple, character generation is just a matter of distributing 12 points over the six stats, and making up a few specialties. Task resolution is done by simply rolling a D6 against the stat, under or equal is a success.

The form
Null State is played in the traditional style with a GM and a set of players, the players play their characters and the GM takes care of the rest.

The chapter with ideas and advice on how the GM can challenge the PCs is twice the size of the rules chapter. I expect that a group will experience character casualties at a pace that rivals Paranoia.

Conclusion
The setting is OK. I considered giving the game a weak rating since there isn’t much to work with when building adventures, and the Null State organization is not given much of a description. But it is an short little game for short little stories, and there is enough setting for that. But remember to pick up a popular science magazine before playing, it is your setting supplement.

The rules are good. Very simple, but for what the game aims to do they fit well. There are a few suggestions for campaign play in the game but I don’t think that many groups would agree that the game suits itself for campaign play

The form is good. It clearly explains how to prepare and run short games with adventures about people who save the world. There are a few examples of play in the game.

Will I play it?
My first instinct was to say ‘no’, the game is simple enough to suit new comers to the hobby, but rampart character death is something that I try to avoid when playing with such players. But on the other hand, there aren’t many games where you could run a full game in an hour and a half, or even shorter than that if you provide some pre gens. Null State might end up in my bag of games, ready to be run when I get a group of players who can’t commit to a full four or five hour game.

nullstate.se – The official Null State page.

Reading Teknochock – rollspel i en snabb och brutal framtid by Olav Nygård

One of the games I got on GothCon XXXV was Teknochock by Olav Nygård. I looked at an early draft of the game and gave some feedback, a few months later Olav came by the Indie Gaming Lounge and gave me a copy of the completed game.

Teknochock cover

Teknochock cover


The book
The game is 144 pages in A5 format. The text is single column, but pulls it off without becoming hard to read, thanks to enough space between the lines. It is a pleasant read, the rules are clear and the setting is even poetic in places, but it took around two hours to get through.

There are lots of black/white illustrations by a number of different artists. The styles are varying, but there are only a few pictures that feel a bit out of place.

The setting
The setting in Teknochock is cyberpunk. The PCs are members of a street gang in a city modeled on Bladerunner or Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy. Players who have played Cyberpunk 2020, Mutant 2089 or NeoTech will feel at home.

The life as a gang member is tough, drugs and violence is everywhere. All the PCs start with one mental problem, rolled from a long list in the book.

The rules
The rules are elegant and simple. Eight stats that each cover one aspect of the life on the street, paired in groups of two. Assign a fixed number of points within each pair to know how good the PC is at action within that area. The typical value is 8.

Basic resolution rolls are done by rolling any number of D6s. The sum of the dice rolled should not exceed the value of the ability, and if it does not every 1, 2 or 3 counts as a success. The player can play it safe with few dice, or roll several for a chance of multiple successes. Various tweaks and exceptions are laid upon that system to add some further depth to the characters.

The PCs get experience from playing adventures, and as they raise their status stat they climb within their own organization. When the status gets high enough the PC has managed to leave the street. Teknochock has a win condition, but one that shouldn’t affect the game if only one-shot adventures are played. Nevertheless campaign play is supported.

The form
The form is GM plus players. But the two page example of actual play shows how all the players have input on the story, not just the GM. A story game in a traditional costume. There is a section with advice to the GM and an intro adventure that the GM is expected to flesh out a bit when running.

Conclusion
The setting is good, there is enough information in the book to write and play a few adventures. And the dark future comes to life in the setting.

The rules are very good, a simple mechanic that manages to have depth, and the rules will produce broken gang members, desperate to fight their way up from the misery on the streets.

The form is good, the play example, GM advice and example adventure show how to run and play the game. It might not be a perfect match for an absolute beginner, but I can definitely think of worse games for such readers.

Will I play it?
I hope so, the rules are solid, and I like the setting material. I might hack it a little bit to support journalists or police officers as characters first though. The 20 year old game Mutant 2089 was my goto game for the genre, but Teknochock has taken it’s place.

www.boningen.org – The author directs the reader to Boningen, but there is not much information about the game there yet. Look under the files section for stuff regarding nTEK, an older incarnation of the game

Visiting GothCon XXXV

I just got back from GothCon XXXV, where I as usual helped hosting the Indie Gaming Lounge.

The games we had brought. Photograph by Joel Möller.

The games we had brought. Photograph by Joel Möller.

As usual we offered indie games, tea and candy on a drop-in basis. Popular games this year were Apocalypse World, Berättelser från Staden, Den Yttersta Domen, Fiasco and Null State. The weather was great, the finest I have ever experienced at GothCon, so many games were played outside.

I managed to do play tests of two of my current projects at the con, first a game of The Academy, the game formerly known as The Cadet Game.

The Academy playtest

The Academy playtest

We tested the bounds of the game and played with six players. Yet we managed to both build an academy, generate characters and play through three years at an orbiting space station and do epilogues for all the characters in a four hour convention slot. It was fun to see that the game worked so well, and I got some valuable feedback on the flow of the game.

Then I played a game of The Phenomenon, a super hero story that turned very 80’ies era supers comic in the end. It was very different from the angst ridden Mummy game in the previous test. I think I have the balancing down now, and it feels good that the game actually works for many different types of stories as intended.

While the World Ends

While the World Ends

Before leaving for home I ran a demo of While the World Ends for two players. This is first time I know of that the game has actually been played in English rather than Swedish. The story revolved around an archaeological dig for alien artifacts on a mysterious moon, and it turned into an exciting story as usual. I might get back to that game with a more lengthy actual play report later, but for now I can finally offer a photo of the artifacts of play from a game played entirely in English. The previous posts have only featured Swedish language artifacts: Greenhouses and Clef society

I got some new interesting Swedish games with me back home, and I hope to get back to them on this blog later with Reading posts.

Reading Krutrök & Sägner – ett historiskt rollspel åren kring 1809 by Linus Råde

On SävCon X I was invited to be on a panel/workshop on game design, a few minutes before the panel started Linus Råde asked me what I thought of his game, Krutrök & Sägner (Gunsmoke & Legends). It had been a more than year since we traded games. My memories of the game were pretty weak, small brown book, blackish illustrations, and not much more.

Now that I’m back home again I thought I’d rectify that lapse. Especially since I actually played the game with the author at a con a few years ago.

The book
Krutrök & Sägner is a 144 page book in A5 format. Richly illustrated by Edelfelt, Malmström and Kittelsen. I assume that all the illustrations are in the public domain these days, I recognize a few of them from old school books. The text is laid out in a two column format and at times it feels like reading a history school book.

The setting
The game is an historical game set in Sweden at the time of the Finnish war, i.e. the one between Sweden and Russia 1808-1809. In 40 pages the reader is given a history of the war and an overview of the Swedish society at the time. There is also a section on folklore, with stats for some traditional Swedish monsters. The folklore monsters are optional, to be used if the players find the historical period a bit dull.

The rules
Character generation is a point-buy system.

The rules are simple, roll under or equal to stat+skill+difficulty with 2d6, fumble on 6/6, critical success on 1/1. There are also simple combat rules, and rules for falling ill and getting infected wounds. The narrow focus on death and disease in the rules give a rather gritty feel to the game.

The form
The form is traditional, a GM (kept in check only by the rules) and a group of players that focus on playing their characters.

Conclusion
The setting is OK, considering the limited space in the book the reader is given enough to work with to run a few games. But a few good adventure/campaign seeds would have been helpful to a GM new to the hobby.

The rules are good, it is a gritty setting and the rules support it well At the same time the rules are simple enough not to get in the way of a good story.

The form is very good. The game assumes a very traditional stance on how RPGs should be played, and it explains how to run such games very well. The section on scenario construction is one of the better I have seen. It is followed by an example scenario following the same pattern, with pre-gen characters for those that want to jump right into the action.

At the workshop Linus talked a bit about his creative process for writing this game. He started with the layout, and then wrote rules, setting etc, to fill the spaces left between the pictures. This explains the very terse section on advanced GM’ing advice, where two out of three ideas are given so little room that I’m having trouble understanding what he is trying to say. Still the advice given to the beginner is outstanding.

Will I play it?
No. The setting feels too much like school to me and the form is not to my liking.

www.interaktivhistoria.se/krutrok – Official site for Krutrök & Sägner

Reading Wizardry and Witchcraft by Daniel Armyr

Wizardry and Witchcraft by Daniel Armyr is a Harry Potter role playing game, an unlicensed Harry Potter role playing game. It gives credit to the works of Rowling’s, but avoids using specific terms and names used in them. No mention of Hogwarts, just magical schools in general etc.

It was released a few years ago and can be downloaded for free. As I understand it there were physical books at one time, but they since long sold out.

The book
Wizardry and Witchcraft The electronic version of the game is a full color 127 page PDF, richly illustrated by Ayne Greensleeves, Jamie Poitra and others.

There are wide margins on the pages, and large fonts in all the headings, the game is a quick read.

The setting
The reader is assumed to be familiar with the Harry Potter books/movies, and there is not much real setting info in the game, except for a pretty nice chapter on the nature of magic.

The game allows for both student and adult characters, but the focus in on the former.

The rules
The game uses a d12 for all mechanics (the common die+attribute+skill against difficulty). The nine attributes are divided into a matrix with the areas of Physical, Mental and Social on one axis and the styles Crude, Efficient and Fancy on the other. I have not seen this anywhere else, and think it is pretty neat.

Each character has a few Virtues (good stuff) and Vices (bad stuff) to give some extra color and bonuses.

The magic rules are simple and follow the same principle as skill use, there are spell lists with assigned difficulties in the game. Also the players are encouraged to invent a few spells of their own during character generation.

All together a pretty light set of rules, that look a bit like the WoD rules on the surface, but without the dice pools.

The form
The game does not say very much about form. There is a GM called Storyteller, and there are players who play wizards and witches. The players are encouraged to keep track of actions that their characters are proud of or ashamed of, but I could not find any rules linked to those records.

Conclusion
The setting is weak, but if everyone is familiar with the source materials it should not be a problem, it’s easy to fill in the gaps.

The rules are good, if you want a traditional rules light game. Less so if you want the rules to model the development of the characters or the story in the source material. Still, if you want a more rules light engine for your WoD game you could pretty much take your character sheets as they are and start using these rules instead.

The form is weak, or nonexistent if you will.

Will I play it?
As you can see above I am not all that impressed by the game, but it is not a bad game, just not something I could see myself running.

If you want a rules light traditional Harry Potter RPG you could definitely do worse than picking up Wizardry and Witchcraft.

wizardryandwitchcraft.sverok.net – The Wizardry and Witchcraft site where the game can be downloaded.

Reading Evolutionens Barn by Mikael Bergström

Evolutionens Barn (Children of the Evolution) is a Swedish indie RPG written by Mikael Bergström. It was written in the same challenge as my own game Medan Världen Går Under / While the World Ends, and I got to play test a draft a few months ago. Now the game will soon be released as POD on Publit, and it is available as a free download online.

The book
I am reading the PDF version of the game, so I don’t know the size of the physical book, but the file is 100 pages. There are a handful of illustrations by Johanna Håård, Ronja Melin and Lina Rydebjörk. Almost all the illustrations are of futuristic looking females in armour, mostly in a style somewhere between The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell.

There are wide margins on the pages and large type, the 100 pages are a fast read.

The setting
I would describe the setting as “Ghost in the Shell RPG”. The PCs are agents working for Special Force 5 in Metropolis, a huge city entirely owned by the SigmaTec corporation. Special Force 5 is a special section within SigmaTec’s security division, mostly concerned with fighting “unpredicted threats” – hackers, terrorists, rogue robots and such.

Metropolis is truly a Utopia where everyone can work with whatever they please and live perfect lives. However the city’s prosperity is provided by slaves working below the city, unknown to most citizens.

The rules
The rules are fast and simple, conflict resolution based. Character generation is just a matter of picking and assigning points to three Aspects and three Memplexes, and picking a few backgrounds.

The Aspects are what you expect them to be. Memplexes on the other hand is one of the two cool features of Evolutionens Barn. Memplexes are ideas, values or ideologies that govern how the character acts. They can be used as a source of extra dice in conflicts, but they can also cause madness if they come in conflict with each other. Memplexes can spread, if the PCs witness or do something extra ordinary they can be assigned more Memplexes, more Memplexes means more sources for extra dice, and greater risks of coming into situations where they are in conflict. Very neat.

The form
The other cool thing about Evolutionens Barn is the form. it is a traditional game in the sense that there is a GM and there are players. But everyone follows a set dramatic structure. All adventures should have phases of exposition, rising action, wrap up, climax and falling action. And for each phase there are clear instructions to the players and GM what should happen in the adventure. If such things indeed happen the players get Progress. Progress shows how far the players have come into the adventure. It clearly shows if they should continue to look for clues or if it is time to go and shoot stuff to pieces.

The Progress track also works as a pacing mechanism, want a longer adventure? Make the track longer.

Conclusion

The setting is OK. There is not much depth in the provided material, but most players probably have seen movies or read comics set in similar settings, so they can extrapolate the missing stuff. Also there is a section in the GM part of the game with advice on how to make the setting your own, if you want to do some world building with the players before playing.

The rules are good. Very simple rules, and lots of diagrams that show how dice should be interpreted. The Memplexes add another dimension to play, players no longer have full control of their characters’ mentality. A little bit like Pendragon, but not quite.

The form is good. The rules for dramatic structure always show everyone what they should do next, a good help for those that want to improvise.

Will I play it?
I would play again, the question is if I would RUN the game. The GM really needs to keep track of all the PCs’ Memplexes in order to create interesting conflicts. With many players that can be a lot to think about while also juggling all the other tasks associated with GMing.

urverkspel.com/index.php… – The official Evolutionens Barn page at Urverk Speldesign.

www.publit.se – Swedish POD company that will print and sell the game.

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