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Episode 0: The Coatli Stone
Paul Baldowski
United Kingdom
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Tunnels and Trolls. Designed by Ken St. Andre and first published in the mid-70s, it intended to provide something more accessible than Dungeons & Dragons. In the 40 years that has followed, the simplicity has remained - the core unchanged. The game has always been open to both group and solo play, fostering a bewildering range of solitaire books. Adrift of any specific setting until Ken introduced Troll World in version 5.5, the game has always embraced a sense of high fantasy.

Porphyry - World of the Burn changes that. Here, in the midst of the melted and shattered remains of a cinder drenched world, lies both struggle and adventure. You may prospers and grow stronger in pursuit of a new world, or become consumed in the otherworldly fires of The Burn that laid waste to ages past...

What Is It?
Porphyry - World of the Burn is a 86-page supplement, by Kyrinn S. Eis, with mechanical content aimed at Tunnels and Trolls or Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes (which run on the same game engine). The supplement, published by Alternate Reality Games, comes in PDF format, with layout set like a pamphlet, two pages to a sheet. From a reading point of view, this works out fine for tablets in landscape orientation and on a standard computer screen. It doesn't work so well with portrait format displays, although many reading applications will manage the experience by advancing page-by-page.

The interior is black-and-white, two column format, in a serif typeface. Pages have a decoration lower border, with a thorny vine motif, containing the page number, and a wide margin on all other sides. The typeface and line spacing makes for relatively easy reading from screen or when printed.

Artwise, Porphyry is a big winner. The interior illustration relies on an impressive rendering of images in a sort of pseudo-silhouette (though I'm probably misdescribing it). Heavy on shadow and darkness, highlighted in white, the images littered throughout the book provide an eye-catching reference point and a glimpse of The World of The Burn. Jez Gordon deserves much applause for the work in this volume, that layers on the atmosphere in an impressively simple way.

The Breakdown
Porphyry - World of the Burn is a source and setting book designed for use with Tunnels and Trolls and MS&PE, but by no means worthless for other games. As a setting book, you can easily adapt the material here to your favoured game system, which needn't be confined to those focussed on fantasy. Akin to Numenera, Porphyry - World of the Burn is about a setting steeped in the ruin and detritus of the past. Centuries ago a world-spanning cataclysm destroyed civilisation. In the wake of The Burn, the world has begun a slow march toward recovery. The influence of The Burn remains, contained in some measure to the far north of the planet. New cities and societies have arisen from the ashes, scraping a post-apocalyptic living from that which remains. The destruction of The Burn destroyed the knowledge of ages past, but in places rare treasures and caches survive. Those with an adventurous streak or the drive for profit over well-being can make a name for themselves and reap rich reward.

In reading the book, I noted that Porphyry - World of the Burn follows the structure of Tunnels and Trolls, broken into sections numbered to match the core rules up to 5th Edition (upon which Kyrinn based this supplement). 7th Edition broke this structure, eschewing the sections and sub-section used in the past. I have an old, trusty Corgi edition however - and that matched perfectly with the referenced sections. The book kicks off with a 2-page table of Contents, followed by a brief Introduction - that affirms the intent of the book as a tool-kit for gamemasters to draw upon as they will, discounting or modifying anything that doesn't work for them.

The first 20-pages deal with facets of Character Generation. The game emphasizes thematic changes of the rule set to match the grim and rugged setting. After discussing basic Abilities and dice rolls to generate them - which uses the result of 4d6 for each rather than the standard 3d6 TARO of 5th Edition (triples add and roll over), you get an expanded equipment list and modified way to generate starting wealth. Porphyry - World of the Burn recommends starting with 2nd level characters, due to the demanding nature of the world environment, but allows for a standard start or even the possibility of 0-level apprentices (oh, what a cruel GM that would be).

Tunnels and Trolls standard setting is Trollworld, a place of high fantasy filled with stereotypical races, like Dwarves, Elves and Hobbits, but also open to much more diverse character options, like Centaur, Orcs or others. Porphyry - World of the Burn has only three options for character species - Human, Beastfolk or Hiz Eruk.

The Burn has tainted the world and those inhabiting it. The mysterious influence of this otherworldly essence has led to the rapid evolution of many animals into the group called the Beastfolk. A character rolled with no ability greater than 12 can opt to be one of the Beastfolk and choose from the available options, that include everything from frogs to pythons, via goats and lemur. The selection modifies physical abilities, either as a change of a few points or whole dice throws, positive and negative. All Beastfolk conform to roughly human-sizes, pushed to extremes - so an Elephant Beastfolk with be immensely tall and heavy and a Raccoon small and light, but on a scale in feet and kilos.

The Hiz Eruk seemed to know The Burn was coming and prepared to do what they could to safeguard the world as best they could. The race internalised and captured fragments of The Burn using powerful magic. They have a sorcerous persuasion that runs in their blood, either embracing and containing the flames or becoming one with them. All Hiz Eruk have some aspect of magic about them, even the warriors, age imperceptibly, and regenerate quickly. However, you need to roll a 16 or higher for all Abilities to opt to play one.

Following some minor changes to basic Character Types - the traditional Warriors, Rogues, Wizards and Warrior-Wizards of Tunnels and Trolls all get a thematic tweak - Porphyry allots a hefty 15-pages (of the 20) to Professions. The choice of Profession represents what a character does when not adventuring, how they can earn coin without risking their necks, and offers a source of expertise - with Skills, Concentration, Specialisations and Assets.

Standard Tunnels and Trolls determines the success or failure of challenges with a Saving Roll - or SR - where the player rolls 2d6 DARO (doubles add and roll over) plus an Ability score to beat a target number (or deducts Ability from target number, then rolls to beat the difference, depending on the version of the rules used). Professional expertise means each character has an area where they function with a Level x 2 bonus to a broad Skill Group, with a Concentration at Lx2+1 and Specialties at Lx2+2.

Porphyry - World of the Burn lists 130 Professions that provides a rich diversity of options for customising characters. A section later in the supplement discusses this at some length, but essentially the combination of class and professions means that players and GM can recreate many of the classes common to other games. Each Profession lists a definite Skill Group, with the focus of Concentrations and Specialties largely left to the individual player and GM.

As a system, this option provides tons of flexibility, while also exerting some measure of comfortable controls. Traditional Tunnels and Trolls left everything wide open without obvious differentiation. Professions provides a great expanse of options, while also layering on some measure of mechanical constraint, which I personally like. The system reminds me a little of Warhammer or Maelstrom, with Professions applying a realistic, grittier aspect to the otherwise fantastical. You can have a group made up of Cooks, Racketeers, Librarians and Rat Catchers, reminding you that this isn't high fantasy, but offering skills and experience that means a group solely composed of Warriors, say, can each offer something different (yes, a Warrior-Librarian - its the future!).

Section 2 deals with Magic. The Burn made fundamental changes to the fabric of reality that means some can make tangible changes to their environment by force of word and will. The special inks used to create writing works immune to the consuming power of The Burn also allow magic users to contain and conduct magic on the page.

The section discusses specialising magic-users and introduces the Porphyry specific specialisation of the Bibliomancer, wielding the power of Library Magic. Bibliomancers have a close link to books and libraries, hearing and feeling the knowledge contained within the pages that surround them. The magic of these specialist Wizards focuses on any form of information storage, and allows them to use, seek, protect and even attack with books.

As well as introducing many new book-based spells, Porphyry also includes a random system for making cosmetic changes to the appearance of magic. Characters can individualise their spells in a number of ways, making the quite limited list of Tunnels and Trolls magic much more varied and interesting.

From page 35, we pick up with information on the World, the effects of the Burn, and what remains. The centre of the book has a map over a two-page spread, a great, rugged wilderness surrounding a circular sea. The background suggests that Porphyry might have experienced more than one impact in it's history, an earlier one creating the regular shaped basic of the great sea.

The section includes information about The Burn, the loss of knowledge from the past, the Hiz Eruk and the rare ore Tsanzel (discovered after the Burn and stronger than any other metal), and then walks through the four corners of the world. Each quarter deals first with the sea and then the land, picking out key islands, cities, settlements or ruins. The whole Porphyry setting squirms beneath the weight of alien sounding names that appears with increasing frequency as you work through the pages. You cannot fault Kyrinn in finding whatever way she could to distance her world from that of common fantasy tropes.

You have 10-pages of strange places to visit and stranger people who already dwell their. The author emphasizes that the setting is not written to constrain the games played their within some ironclad canon from which none can vary. Even the parts where Kyrinn has specifically steered away from the traditional line, the GM has the choice to steer straight back.

After the background, we jump into crunch, with alternate approaches to Healing & Recovery. Stuff & Things looks at the effect of Tsanzel metals on crafted items, Arcane Ink and the different trade goods of the various lands. While Tunnels and Trolls has always allowed for the use of Black Powder Gunnes, Missle Weapons covers the ground to allow for more guns, varied hit locations (when aiming high or low), and the differing Target Numbers depending on range and circumstance.

The section rounds out with 2-pages of Cursed and Wondrous Items - although I struggle with the former. Most of the items, while interesting to read, would be thrown away the moment their accursed state becomes clear, but the section suggests no specific way to make the process of breaking the curse more onerous.

Page 53 easily has the best illustration in the whole book, with a massive crowned monstrosity laying waste to a group of adventurers, with one clasped in hand suffering death by "laser eyes" through the skull. Brilliant image! This picture precedes the next chunky section of the book, Creatures of Porphyry. This 16-page section provides the last of the main content in the book and details forty-two creatures of The Burn, from haunted objects to cultists of the Burn via rogue war machines and devastating agents of destruction likely to reduce your player characters to smouldering ashes.

The varied bestiary presented here really showcases the varied extremes of the World of The Burn, including numerous representatives of the forgotten past. Undead rub shoulders with infernal machines and lost agents of a bygone era. You even get a Cthulhu nod with the presence of Nightgaunts, distinctly the rubbery skinned, horned horrors of Lovecraftian fiction. The presence of the Mythos is obligatory to ensure you cover the whole demographic spread of gamerdom, and I don't have any problem with it. Actually, if you felt inclined, you might fall upon the angle that Porphyry suffered the onslaught of some ancient meta-dimensional horror, like Derleth's fiery Cthughu.

The final sections of the supplement contain the Appendices. Appendix 1 considers Professions in the game in greater detail, and I have mentioned this already. Characters also acquire certain social characteristics from their professional life, including Favours, Rivals, Contacts, Discounts and Notoriety, which this section covers in various levels of detail.

Character Traits and Their Use provides several random tables for determining background traits based on the region of a character's upbringing. Traits provide a limited number of bonus dice tied to a certain point of view or motivation - like Community-Minded or Low Down & Dirty. Trait use can be brought into play by the GM or volunteered by the player, which makes for some interesting story-influencing opportunities. Traits most likely to lead to some kind of 'cost' on the character have larger pools of potential bonus dice, with small pools for traits based around self-interested aspects, like Reserved or Bottom-line Operator.

Appendix 2 adds a significant change to Tunnels and Trolls by introducing Social Combat. The basic rules deal with the charismatic influence of characters on non-player characters through simple Saving Rolls. Social Combat creates a new approach to interaction with social "hit points" and a mechanical approach open to those who want to use something with crunch. The author emphasizes use of this system only where it adds to the game and never as a means simply to avoid actual roleplaying. No skipping past puzzles and conundrums with a simple throw of the dice. I like some of the material in here, with applications to shock, spiritual horror, and influence by steady grinding attrition of nerve and will. I agree that there has to be a time and a place for this sort of thing - and I can see some adopting this approach and others sticking with the original procedure.

Appendix 3 rounds off the volume with three pages on converting Tunnels and Trolls to the 1st Edition AD&D system - which I thought was a bit odd, but the whole Old School thing has it's influence everywhere!

My Thoughts in Summary
Tunnels and Trolls has been around for a long time and the simplicity of the system has, perhaps, made it a bottom of the barrel choice for gamers with other games to play. However, just this year I witnessed a riotous convention game run using the system, and it made me wonder.

Porphyry - World of the Burn adds a lot of weight to my consideration that Tunnels and Trolls shouldn't be discounted. The flexibility and simplicity of the system make Tunnels and Trolls an ideal pick-up system, and The Burn adds maturity, darkness and horror sure to appeal to the modern gamer.

The Profession system makes for considerable potential in creating individual and interesting characters. I really like the idea - having always been a fan of similar systems in other games - and I think it adds a lot of flavour. No one is born to adventure, any more than people in the real world are born to become pop idols.

The background of the Burn and the diverse menagerie of the bestiary within the Creatures of Porphyry makes me want to run adventures here and leave my players shaken by the experience. More over, Jez Gordon's illustrations REALLY make me want to play in this world. I haven't seen images so evocative for a long time and for them to be so simple, just black and white... I'm thoroughly impressed and filled with enthusiasm for exploring what lies behind each of them.

Porphyry - World of the Burn isn't perfect. Considering the apparent simplicity of Tunnels and Trolls, some of the crunch in here can get quite confusing to decipher. Social Combat might seem neat, but it might present too much of a uplift in functionality. Of course, you can ignore anything and everything that doesn't sit well with you - the author says as much. You have enough content, ideas and brilliant imagery in here, for the meagre price tag, to cast the crunch aside and use it with your own system. You can also co-opt some of the crunch to work with your own system, like the Professions, if it doesn't have something similar already.

In the end, I would recommend it. I certainly have every intention to give it a spin, using the T&T engine as contained within my dog-eared Corgi paperback copy.

Oh, and I'm sorely tempted to go for the Print on Demand option based on the images alone... especially for the full experience of Page 53. I've never felt that way about a game or supplement before. And, I just noticed you can even get some of Gordon's work as posters and framed prints...
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