Shadows of Keron: A Retrospective

It’s time to call this one. Time of death: April 2014.

I have enough material to keep running the game for another year, maybe two, but with several of the group dealing with serious illness in the family, two running after a new baby, one off to university and two off to Japan, the best I can hope for is a long hiatus. All the same, it’s been fun while it lasted, and a real success. My only regret is that it petered out, rather than ending on the kind of slam-bang, white-knuckle high note I’d hoped for; but such is life.

If you count the city of Irongrave where the PCs began, which was absorbed into the Dread Sea Dominions once Beasts & Barbarians captured my imagination, this campaign has lasted about four years of real time; one of the longest I’ve ever run.

The game introduced half-a-dozen new people to role-playing, and four of them still play on a regular basis; that’s a win, right there. I converted the whole group to Savage Worlds – win – and they converted me to Shadowrun – win. I got to know Piotr Korys and Umberto Pignatelli – win.

Over the course of the campaign, the PCs have grown from their lowly beginnings at Novice rank to the edge of Legendary. They have travelled across the Dominions from the Independent Cities to the Troll Mountains to the Ivory Savannah. They have looted tombs, toppled kingdoms and slain a god. They have upset the balance of power in the Dominions for centuries to come by gifting both the Ascaian Amazons and the Smith-Priests of Hulian the secret of steel-making.

What now for our heroes?

The Warforged intends seizing control of the abandoned City of the Winged God, where he plans to create a new race of warforged and take over the world – for the greater good of all, of course. (It always starts like that, doesn’t it? Then there are dissenters, then the Blast powers and frying pans come out, and the screaming starts…)

Nessime has been instructed by the Smith-Priests to make her way to Jalizar, there to help contain its ancient evils.

Gutz’ present whereabouts are unknown; but the party’s jewels are safe with him, wherever he and Maximus the warhorse are – at least until he finds a tavern with dancing-girls…

“When it’s over, when it’s done – let it go.” – The Bangles, Let It Go

Survival of the Coolest

Still driving when I should be gaming; but it gives me time to think. This week’s thought – yes, sadly they really are that infrequent at the moment – is that the less setting there is, the better I get on with a game. My focus is on rules, characters and adventures; for me, the setting is only a stage on which the other items interact, and as the campaign progresses, it increasingly becomes a constraint on what can be done next.

This is probably why I get on so well with All Things Zombie; it has no setting to speak of, plus it’s credible for the zeds to move and attack on autopilot, making it perfect for solo gaming.

It also explains the attraction of the Savage Worlds Sci Fi Companion version of hyperdrive; any planet you like can be in the game one week, written out the next, and back again the week after that.

One could use this as an evolutionary approach to setting creation; worlds, factions, NPCs or whatever are created, and compete against each other for the players’ attention. Those which gain it thrive, and reappear in future sessions. Those which do not disappear back into the filing cabinet, and eventually the wastepaper bin.

I like the idea of the campaign being made up of whatever components are fun and memorable enough not to need writing down. The things that stay in the campaign are the ones at least one player remembers, and if he or she remembers a better version than we actually used last session, that is a Good Thing.

Survival of the coolest.

Hyperspace

"If the Drive allowed ships to sneak up on planets, materializing without warning out of hyperspace, there could be no Empire even with the Field. There’d be no Empire because belonging to an Empire wouldn’t protect you. Instead there might be populations of planet-bound serfs ruled at random by successive hordes of space pirates. Upward mobility in society would consist of getting your own ship and turning pirate." – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Building the Mote in God’s Eye

I was going to reboot the Arioniad and move the Dark Nebula campaign forward in this post, but I got distracted by work, family stuff and travel. Lots of travel.

While driving, I’ve been thinking about hyperspace as presented in the Savage Worlds Sci Fi Companion, and playing my usual game: What would the setting be like if it were a 100% faithful reflection of the rules?

Page 42 of the SFC tells us the following…

  • You need a computer and a Knowledge (Astrogation) roll to make a jump – these are to plot a course that avoids planets and other obstacles.
  • Jumps are split into three classes: Same star system (easy, doesn’t use much fuel); same galaxy (average); different galaxy (hard, lots of fuel).
  • A jump takes no time but you arrive 2d6 days from the destination, less if you roll well or spend extra fuel to arrive early, the same day if you like. At first I assumed you emerged first, then chose whether to spend the extra energy, but the rules are unclear on whether you emerge first – although it seems pretty clear that you roll before deciding whether to speed up.
  • Fuel is usually bought from spaceports.
  • You roll for supply and demand of various trade goods after deciding on the starship’s next destination.

The consensus on the SW forum is that this is more like Star Wars than anything. I’d also point to Cordwainer Smith’s space3, the later Foundation novels, and (to an extent) the Stargate franchise; effectively, hyperspace is a point rather than a plane or volume, and hyperspace travel is a condition rather than movement as such.

The Rules As Written have some interesting implications for a setting.

  • The campaign doesn’t need a map, because you can jump from any star system to any other star system directly. The PCs may have star charts, but neither the players nor the GM need them. Thus. campaigns are less likely to be sandbox games, because the players’ decisions on where to go next are less important; without chains of systems forming routes, going to planet A doesn’t commit you to visiting B before you get to C.
  • There are no choke points to defend. To my mind, this means interstellar navies behave more like modern ballistic missile submarines than "conventional" star fleets; the Federation Navy can’t mount a spirited defence at Outpost Five to stop the Imperial Navy’s fleet breaking through to nuke Earth, but they can certainly nuke the Empire’s homeworld right back. (I disagree with Niven and Pournelle here; an empire can still protect you, but it does so by deterrence.)
  • Merchant ships are probably armed. The Navy can’t protect you from pirates unless it’s right alongside every ship, every jump. Not going to happen.
  • You can’t blockade a star system. Smugglers and blockade runners can jump right past you, and if the GM allows precision jumps, the ships can go from inside one warehouse to inside another. (Jumps are probably not that precise, as if they were, you wouldn’t need ships; a big flatbed truck would be just as good, and a lot cheaper.)
  • If the GM isn’t careful, you can make an absolute killing trading. With a large enough selection of worlds, there will always be somewhere selling Fuel (the most valuable item at a base value of $2,000 per cargo space) for half price, and somewhere else desperate to buy it for five times the base price, yielding a revenue of $9,000 per cargo space per trip. This is probably why the rules state you pick your destination first, then roll for supply and demand there – notice the implication that the adventure takes the party to that planet anyway, with trade being a sideline for the players, even if it’s the PCs’ main purpose.
  • Since you typically refuel at a spaceport, travel off the beaten path is rare. Jump co-ordinates for specific worlds may be valuable prizes, or scenario McGuffins. Yes, you can jump straight to the Treasure Planet, but only if you know where it is.

I actually rather like the idea of this inferred setting; it’s fast, furious and unusual. However, the fact that it’s unusual suggests there’s a reason why games and literature generally use jump routes. So tell me, gentle readers, what have I overlooked?

Telrax the Indomitable, Episode 1

Today, we bring you an example/review of Scarlet Heroes solo play, featuring Telrax the Indomitable. This may or may not become a regular feature. I have largely suppressed my narrative urges, the better to show you the rules at work.

CHARACTER GENERATION

First I need a character. My focus at the moment is understanding how the solo rules work, so I take the simplest race and class – human fighter – to avoid distractions. SNP is unusually lenient here, in that rather than "roll 3d6 and you’re stuck with it", Scarlet Heroes PCs use the 4d6-drop-lowest-and-rearrange approach, with at least a 16 in the prime requisite guaranteed. I roll 16, 16, 13, 12, 11, 8, which I think will be good enough, and rearrange them as Str 16 (+2), Dex 12 (+0), Con 16 (+2), Int 13 (+1), Wis 8 (-1), Cha 11 (+0) – Telrax is a big, beefy lad, with a certain low cunning, but prone to impulsive decisions; a perfect fighter.

Page 8 tells me he can use any armour or weapons, begins with 8 hit points and gains +4 HP per level, begins with a +1 attack bonus and gains +1 per level, and his Fray Die is 1d8.

Telrax gets three Trait points, plus two for being human. I allocate these as Barbarian Warrior +3 and City Guard +2. I picture him wandering into some city as a youth much like Conan, but choosing the side of law rather than becoming a petty thief. He has now grown bored with taking orders and sets out to seek his fortune.

A roll of 15 grants him 150 gp to spend on equipment; I take a one-handed weapon (1d8, probably a sword) for 15 gp, a small weapon (let’s say a dagger, 1d4, 2 gp), chainmail (70 gp) and shield (5 gp) which together give him AC4, and decide to begin with an urban adventure (so the shops are handy) and figure out what else he needs later on, so as to start playing immediately. Total expenditure 92 gp, leaving him with 58 gp in cash.

Where is Telrax from? What city is he in? It doesn’t matter at this stage. Let’s see how the rules play before I commit myself to any of that.

SETUP

I now turn to p. 116 and points west, and the urban solo adventure rules, and begin by rolling 1d8 to generate a plot. A score of 1 (assassination) tells me that I should pick either the antagonist or the target as my initial contact, and I will only learn about the other one after a successful investigation scene. I set Victory Points both for Telrax and the antagonist to zero (first one to 10 wins). Hmm. This early in the game I have no idea which person Telrax would care more about, so I decide to work one out first and then decide which they are.

Flipping back to page 114, I decide whether this person is an assassin or a victim, they’re most likely to be in the Elite and Noble column of the NPCs table. A couple of dice rolls tell me that the NPC is in fact a Famed Courtesan who Telrax owes a favour. She’s Shou Blooded, hard of hearing, lazy, and her immediate purpose is to destroy the evidence of something. That sounds more like a victim than an assassin; we’ll figure out what’s going on later. I set the Threat Level to 1, as that is Telrax’s level. I need a name for the Famed Courtesan; the NPC names tables don’t have any for the Shou Blooded, so arbitrarily I pick Yanmei from the Imperial name tables – obviously she has a professional name, and prefers not to use her real one. (I could have cracked open my copy of Red Tide and taken a Shou name from there, but inertia overcame me.)

SCENE 1

Telrax hasn’t got a Clue yet, so can’t pick an action scene; he can choose either an investigation or a conflict scene, so in time-honoured pulp tradition we begin with a conflict. Rather than roll for this, I select "Waylay a minion of the foe. Face a fight instead of a check."

Clearly, Telrax has found the courtesan trying to dispose of some evidence while being ambushed; I expect he knows her from his time in the City Guard, although since she is a Famed Courtesan he is probably not a former patron.

Moving on to the tables on page 119, a few more dice rolls tell me that this is happening in or near a sewer passage (probably where the evidence is going), that the opposition are 1d4+T Rabble assassins (OK, that figures) – a die roll gives me three of them, and I can see their stats at the bottom of the page; HD 1, AC 9, +1 to hit, 1d4 damage, morale 8, skill +1, move 30′.

We’ll deal with the fight in a moment, but meanwhile, what is this evidence? I decide to roll up a random object on the tables on p. 81. The most interesting option is Jewelry, so I roll some more dice and get a bloodstone amulet, worth 500 gp.

Condensed Narrative Part 1

Telrax is walking through the slums when he spies Yanmei, a courtesan of his acquaintance, hiding a packet in a nearby sewer entrance. Not a very good hiding place, but then, Yanmei is not a fan of hard work. Nor is she especially alert, and she fails to detect the three ruffians approaching her stealthily from behind. However, Telrax owes her, and this looks like a good chance to repay the favour.

The Fight

This being Scarlet Heroes and Telrax a PC, he goes first. Everyone else rolls 1d8 plus Dex modifier (which I’ll call +0 all round to save time) and acts in descending order; that gives us Ruffians #1 and #2 (1), Yanmei (2), and finally Ruffian #3 (5).

Let’s start with the Fray Die, which for Telrax is 1d8. He rolls 4, which signifies one point of damage; since the thugs’ hit dice are less than or equal to his level, he deducts that damage point directly from Ruffian #1′s hit dice (not hit points), removing him from play.

Attacking #2, Telrax rolls 13 on 1d20, then adds +2 for his Strength modifier, +1 for his attack bonus, and +9 for the target’s AC – a total of 25, which as it is at least 20, hits the target. He rolls 1d8 for damage and gets a 5, inflicting one point of damage; this is deducted directly from the target’s hit dice and fells him.

The foes now face a morale check for their losses (p. 18) and roll 2d6 vs their Morale of 8; they roll a 6 and continue – but must now take a second check for losing half their number or more. They roll an 8, and not only carry on, but because they have passed two morale checks will fight to the death.

Yanmei draws a dagger and stabs at the third and final assailant; she rolls 8, plus his AC of 9, plus no bonuses, for a 17 – miss. Ruffian #3 now swings at her, rolling a 3, plus 9 for her AC, plus one for his attack bonus; total 13, also a miss.

It’s a new turn, so initiative again; both NPCs roll a 2, so they will act simultaneously, and Telrax always goes first. The Fray Die comes up 1, inflicting no damage; he rolls 15 to hit, and I can tell that will hit without adding it up. He rolls 7 for damage, which does two points of damage directly to the thug’s hit dice, killing him outright. (Note that had there been another thug left, the second damage point would have got him too.)

Telrax gets a Victory Point for prevailing in this scene (p. 116), and would deduct one from his enemy’s total for winning a conflict, but the as-yet unnamed foe is still on zero VP. He also gets one XP for completing the session, having accomplished something heroic (rescuing a damsel in distress).

Condensed Narrative Part 2

Just as Yanmei fails to notice the ruffians, they fail to notice Telrax coming up behind them until he kicks one of them into the sewer mouth. While the scream and splash are still echoing, Telrax follows up with a savage thrust into the back of the second thug, ending him. Yanmei draws a dagger from somewhere in her diaphanous robes, and she and the surviving thug trade ineffective stabs until Telrax slips past his guard and drops him with a mighty slash.

"Hello, Yanmei," Telrax grins, reaching into the sewer mouth and retrieving a pouch. Emptying it onto his palm, he notices a small bloodstone amulet.

"What have we here? There’s a story behind this, I’ll wager. Do you want to talk about it?"

"Not here," Yanmei replies, looking around her warily. "Follow me, I will explain…"

Pausing only to roll the two dead bodies into the sewer, Telrax obeys.

CONCLUSIONS

Well, that was fun, fast, and easy to run; the initial character generation and set up took about half an hour, and scene 1 just over ten minutes – I expect both would speed up with practice. I was able to run the actual scene with only the quick reference rules on p. 25 and the NPC stats.

The Fray Die is vicious against low-level combatants; between that and his combat adds, Telrax can be pretty certain of incapacitating two mooks per turn. I rather like that, very Conanesque.

It doesn’t take much story to hook me, so you can probably expect further episodes of the adventures of Telrax later. Meanwhile, up next: More Dark Nebula…

Review: Stellar Heroes

Good Lord, Mandate Archive: Stellar Heroes is out already… as promised, a review as soon as I got my hands on it.

In a Nutshell: Stars Without Number supplement for running adventures with one PC and a GM. 7 page PDF, free to download from RPGNow or the Sine Nomine website.

CONTENTS

This Mandate Archive is split into three parts.

First, there is a one-page explanation of what the supplement is for (running Stars Without Number adventures for one or two PCs), and how that differs from normal play (since the group is smaller, consensus is reached much more quickly, so stories are faster-moving).

The second part modifies SWN’s rules for a single PC, who has fewer hit points and a narrower range of skills than a full party. The changes are largely common to Solo Heroes and Scarlet Heroes from the same publisher, both of which cover the same ground for fantasy. To summarise:

  • The PC always wins initiative.
  • Damage and healing dice are read differently, making PCs tougher and NPCs much more fragile, but without changing the scenario or characters.
  • The Fray Die lets the PC roll damage each turn against any NPC in range, even if he is doing something else that round.
  • Defying Death essentially allows the PC to trade hit points for success in a check they would not otherwise make.
  • Lone heroes gain skill points at twice the normal rate when levelling up.

This part closes with a half-page detailed example of how the rules changes work in play.

The third part is a short adventure for a single 1st level hero, pitting him or her against a group of terrorists threatening to crash an orbital station into a surface city. It’s a 10-location dungeon crawl in space, with statblocks for relevant NPCs. Can you say Die Hard? I knew you could…

FORMAT

Black on gold front cover, full colour back cover advertising Scarlet Heroes, and in between, five pages of black on white two-column text in the usual crisp, effective layout.

CONCLUSION

This supplement does what it sets out to do, and does it well; specifically, it applies a handful of rules tweaks to SWN which allows a single PC to survive, and successfully complete, an adventure written for a full-sized group, without rewriting the adventure or the character sheets.

However, what I’m really looking for is a science fiction version of Scarlet Heroes – rules for GM-less SF with a built in setting. I’m hopeful that just as Solo Heroes led to Scarlet Heroes, so Stellar Heroes will lead to something bigger.

Review: Scarlet Heroes Beta

Here’s the latest product from Sine Nomine Publications out of Kickstarter.

Kevin Crawford’s idea of a Kickstarter is that he writes the whole book first, then uses the Kickstarter funding to pay for the artwork. By backing the Kickstarter, I get a link to download the beta version of the rules. This is awesome, as it means I can start playing the game before the Kickstarter even funds, and even if it fails (which it won’t, it’s already over-pledged by nearly a factor of three) or he dies before release (heaven forbid, seriously), I still have the game. Respect, Mr Crawford, respect.

But enough of that. Let’s take a look at the game, shall we?

In a Nutshell: Old School RPG for one player, with or without a GM, using Sine Nomine’s Red Tide setting. 129 page PDF.

CONTENTS

Introduction (1 page): This is half introduction to the Red Tide setting, and half explanation of what the game is about.

The world of the Red Tide is one which has been almost entirely overrun by eldritch horror, and the survivors of a dozen cultures are crammed together on a small group of islands, formerly owned by the goblinoid races (who would like them back, thank you very much). This lets you have Norse berserkers and Chinese mandarins adventuring together without stretching the background too much.

The game is for fast play with one player and a GM, or solo gaming; maybe you want to show a non-gamer what it’s about, maybe only one player showed up tonight, maybe you’re stuck in a hotel room with a couple of hours to kill. Like all of SNP’s games, it is about focusing a GM’s limited time on the fun stuff.

Creating Your Hero (12 pages): Old School D&D-style chargen; the usual six attributes in the 3-18 range, a race (the usual Tolkienian suspects, with race as a class as in Moldvay D&D), a class (the basic four), and – wait, what’s this? Traits?

Traits are like Fate aspects, or 13th Age Backgrounds; you have three points to allocate to tags that you make up for your character, such as "City Guard". Skill checks, as you’ll see later, are made on 2d8, and you can add the value of the highest relevant trait to the dice roll. Each time your PC levels up, he or she gets another trait point, which can boost an existing trait or start a new one. The PC’s race and class give bonus trait points, usually in a specific pre-defined trait.

There’s an equipment list with the usual mediaeval items, including armour, weapons, miscellaneous gear, hirelings and services. There’s a set of random chargen tables if your imagination fails you in deciding your race, class, traits, and pre-existing relationships with NPCs. The section closes with a character sheet.

Playing the Game (10 pages): The reader is first warned that these rules look like d20 games you know and love, but are in fact different; then we launch into checks (2d8 + best relevant trait, meet or beat difficulty level to succeed), saving throws (checks which also add your PC’s level), attack rolls (1d20 + modifiers + target armour class, 20+ hits), and damage rolls (which are the most divergent from D&D, and act to make PCs tougher than usual and NPC mooks much more fragile).

Combat rules are also a little different than the older d20 games. Initiative assumes PCs always go first, and only NPCs roll for it. Attacks and damage I’ve mentioned, but not the Fray Die, which only PCs have, and which deals automatic damage to NPCs of lesser level within melee range, regardless of what the PC is doing. Scarlet Heroes PCs are badasses, and as an NPC, you get up close and personal with them at your peril. I rather like that. Clerics also turn undead using the Fray Die, which is interesting but I’d want to play with it for a bit before deciding how good it is.

Heroes may also Defy Death to overcome failed saving throws, certain catastrophe or lack of skill – this basically allows the PC to trade hit points for success.

This chapter also covers healing and non-combat hazards like diseases, travel and encumbrance, ships and ship combat, and levelling up – like the rest of the game this is much simplified when compared to D&D, with heroes getting one experience point per game session, and levelling up every few XP. The default assumption is that most PCs won’t go far beyond 10th level.

The conversion rules explained something that was puzzling me, namely why not use smaller damage dice rather than reading (say) rolls of 2-4 as one point of damage; the reason is that this way you can use any of the existing d20-based adventures or monsters as they are, without converting any stats; the conversion happens in the GM’s head, on the fly. Likewise, if you want to use any Scarlet Heroes material in (say) Labyrinth Lord, you can do that with almost no effort.

This section closes with notes on how to use Scarlet Heroes with more than one PC, and a quick reference sheet.

Red Sorcery (14 pages): Vancian magic is alive and well here; in line with the other rules simplifications, though, clerics and mages have the same spell progression. Your PC can prepare and hold ready a set number of spells of each spell level he has access to, and once cast they’re gone. No mana points here.

The bulk of the chapter is spell listings; 40 clerical spells and 50 magical ones, with thunderously Vancian names such as Crimson Rain of Deliquesence. The book doesn’t just regurgitate the traditional spells, it has what appear to me to be largely  a new set, although I admit to skimming them at this point and may realise they’re familiar after all on a more detailed reading.

This chapter ends with the list of Munificent Patrons, those Kickstarter backers who ponied up the larger pledges. It’s blank in the beta.

The World of the Red Tide (12 pages): History, geography, politics and so forth of the setting described in Red Tide itself, basically the typical gamer’s favourite cultures all squashed together into a small group of islands.

A Bestiary of Foes (16 pages): What it says on the tin; about 60 monster descriptions and statblocks. These include a number of new monsters as well as stock opponents from earlier rules sets and Red Tide. There are encounter tables by terrain type, but encounters are not gated by level; as with SNP’s other works, this is a sandbox world, and you are expected to be smart enough to identify an unwinnable fight and back away from it.

Where this section moves away from standard fare is in the Encounter Twists page; random tables to determine the opposition’s current purpose, attitude towards the hero, and size and condition. For example, one might encounter a group of hobgoblins in a dungeon only to discover that they are repairing a damaged fitting, unwilling to fight unless they have to, and gravely wounded already with -3 Morale. (I would spin that as hobgoblins fresh from a fight with another party who kicked in the door to their lair, which they are now repairing.)

Treasures Beyond Price (12 pages): This begins with a discussion of the various approaches to treasure; basic D&D (use the treasure as written in existing modules), creating your own adventures (guidelines provided) and pulp ("Just give me the Eye of Darkness, I’m only gonna spend that silver on ale and whores anyway" – optional rules provided). We then move on into treasure tables, with 30+ example troves ranging from a peasant family’s savings (a few coins, some cheap clothes and jewelry) through the Shiny-Loving Beast Nest (gold and jewelry) to the Mighty Wizard-Lord (gold, furniture, jewelry and magic items). Further tables allow you to determine that the peasant’s wife has an agate nose ring, or that the Wizard Lord’s throne is fashioned of jewelled bronze. Finally, rules on creating, buying and selling magic items, and the obligatory random tables for them.

Adventures (22 pages): Notes for the GM, first explaining the advantages of working with one PC rather than a party – solo adventures are fast-moving, agile and personal – and the pros and cons of sandbox play as opposed to the (currently) more fashionable story arcs. After that, they move on to whether and why you might use a campaign setting, components of an adventure and how to put them together, and a recap of SNP’s Golden Rule of Preparation: If you don’t need it for the next session, and you’re not having fun making it up, leave it alone and move on. Advice on running adventures is focused on how to explain the minimum-prep modified sandbox approach to your player. There’s a brief section on rewards and advancement.

Where this chapter shines is in Crawford expanding his popular tag system (previously used on various types of locations) to sword and sorcery adventures; there are 20 tags for each of three adventure types, and you can use one or more tags per adventure depending on how complex you want it to be. This is best shown by example; rolling a 5 on 1d6 followed by a 6 on 1d20 tells me I have a dungeon adventure with the tag False Facade; a place of danger which appears to be something else entirely, something innocent and harmless. I’m then presented with a list of possible friends, enemies, things, complications and locations; for example the hero might find a hidden escapee, pursued by the mayor of a secret cannibal village twisted by an evil relic, who only prey on the weak (and thus will leave the PC alone if he leaves them alone), and places including a hidden abattoir and the graves of former inhabitants.

As is common in SNP works, there is also a section of unkeyed maps to use (albeit present in the beta as gaps in the text), commentary on why you might or might not use them, and random tables to help the GM: Names by race and nationality, and quick NPCs. These would integrate well with Red Tide.

Solo Gaming (15 pages): This was the bit I was most interested in, as geography and other factors currently constrain me to solo play. The chapter divides adventures into urban, wilderness and dungeon, with the expectation that your PC will switch from one to another as his story progresses, and the suggestion that the scenarios thus generated could be used for a more normal GM-group session. Each adventure has a threat level, which defaults to that of the PC, but may be higher or lower. This is listed as "T" on later tables – for example one might be assaulted by a trap inflicting Td4 damage, which for a level 6 trip would be 6d4 hits.

There are a few Oracular tables, which function much like those in Mythos but are more concise; they give general yes/no answers, and random adjectives and motivations to shade those answers; distance to things; weather; and NPCs, their reactions and relationships between them. Most of those could be used in any other solo RPG with a little thought.

Each type of adventure then has a few pages set aside to define it, as each involves different events and a different story structure.

Urban adventures revolve around solving crimes or other plots by progressing from scene to scene, overcoming challenges with skill checks and gathering Clues or Victory Points. Intruding into a building or complex may temporarily shift the focus onto a dungeon adventure. Sometimes the PC’s methods are unpopular, generating "Heat" which represents animosity among the locals. Getting them angry enough means you need to flee the city, or deal with their attempts to dispose of you in the next session.

Wilderness adventures are about exploring the unknown and looting its treasures. Your hero wanders across a hex map, generating terrain (unless you have a map already), encounters, and features of interest as they go. Features can generate dungeon adventures.

Dungeon adventures are about exploring ruins or lairs, killing the occupants and taking their stuff. There are rules for generating a dungeon as you go (including occupants, special features and treasure), finding the creature or object you were hired to find, sounding the alarm, and retreating from combat.

Advice on running NPC foes in combat is sparse, essentially limited to "do what makes sense, and if you get stuck roll on the Oracle tables to decide."

…and we close with an index.

FORMAT

Colour cover, two-column black on white text, black and white interior line art, crisp, clear layout. Basic, easy to use, gets the job done.

Note that in the beta version of the game, many of the illustrations are missing, pending Kickstarter funding to pay for them.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I was hoping for more advice on running NPCs in solo combat, since as written the foe’s tactics are limited to what I can dream up. However, I can see that with a wide range of monsters this could easily become a book in its own right, with complex and time-consuming lookups which derail play – and how would it cope with the GM’s own monsters?

I was going to request a supplement for solo adventuring in Stars Without Number, but the day before I posted this, Kevin Crawford announced in his latest Kickstarter update that he would be doing just that – how’s that for customer service? Watch for a review of Mandate Archive: Stellar Heroes as soon as I can get my greasy mitts on a copy.

CONCLUSIONS

In a sense, this is the fully-fledged version of SNP’s earlier Black Streams supplement, Solo Heroes; so if you want to see a bit more detail, download that and read through it.

I was expecting Scarlet Heroes to be a supplement, requiring both Labyrinth Lord and Red Tide to use, but it isn’t and doesn’t. Instead, it’s entirely self-contained, and cleverly written so that converting material to and from D&D retroclones is very easy to do. The rules are simplified and unified, stripping class-and-level gaming down to something very easy to explain and remember, with almost no special cases; what I find especially intriguing is that by switching the variant damage rule on or off, you have something suitable for one PC or many. I didn’t really understand that when reading Solo Heroes.

I keep looking at retroclones and thinking how nice it would be to recapture the feel of gaming as it was in the 1970s, then re-reading the RPGs from that era and remembering why I’ve moved on to more sophisticated (and more coherent) rules. Scarlet Heroes is an intriguing blend of the two approaches; like most SNP products, it takes familiar mechanics, tightens them up into something slicker, then integrates them seamlessly with each other.

Scarlet Heroes assumes a certain level of knowledge for the GM (although not necessarily the player), and specifically that he already understands how Old School d20 games work. That’s probably a safe assumption for anyone who finds that game, or this blog.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. I didn’t expect to be so taken with this, but I feel the urge to kick off a new solo game. Watch for that coming in a couple of weeks to this very blog…

Dark Nebula: Setting Inferences

“The Klingons are a proud warrior race, and have no need of fripperies such as fridge magnets.” – Bill Bailey

Having done the map, the next stage in my budding Dark Nebula campaign is to peruse the boardgame and see what I can infer from it. For this purpose I’m considering Savage Worlds, Stars Without Number, 5150 and Traveller as candidates for the rules – I expect to use all of them in this setting at some point, so I’m looking for common denominators.

TRAVELLER

Let’s start with Traveller, because the designers were writing Classic Traveller at the same time they were writing Dark Nebula and used some of the same concepts, so it should be easiest.

Jump Routes

There are only a handful of J-3 routes, and a single J-4 route.

J-1 drives would be limited to a few specific clusters of worlds; in the Solomani Confederation there is one group of four worlds and one pair, in the Aslan Hierate there is a group of three, there’s a group of six worlds between Mizah and Daanarni, and there are a few isolated pairs out in the boonies.

However, there’s only one system you can’t reach with a Jump-2 drive at the start of the game, and that’s Taida Na, which initially can only be reached from Valka using a J-4 drive. So the majority of starships would have Jump-2 drives; you really don’t need anything more, and you have severely limited movement with less. The military might have a few J-3 ships, maybe even the odd J-4, but that’s debatable.

This is somewhere that Mongoose Traveller may have an edge; in the board game, any ship can traverse any jump route; so the Mongoose warp drive variant rule might be a better fit. (And while we’re at it, given the unusually high proportion of waterless worlds, maybe the Mongoose hard SF option for world generation.)

Population

Kuzu and Maadin are both specified as homeworlds with "high populations". That term has a specific meaning in Traveller, namely a population of 9 (billions) or A (tens of billions) – looking ahead to SWN, and because I normally assign the minimum value necessary to match other evidence, I’ll go with 9. Given their status in the game, they deserve class A starports as well.

Technology

As far as technology goes, J-4 drives and battle dress for jump troops, but lack of evidence for anything higher-tech than that, place the maximum TL in the region at D (13). There’s also no need for it anywhere other than Maadin and Kuzu, so that sets their TL.

Races

The boardgame is silent on these, but familiarity with the default Traveller setting will tell you that Solomani humans and Aslan are present. In the past I’ve added droyne, ithklur, vilani and others, and may do so this time as well, but let’s see how far we can get with just the basic two for the moment.

STARS WITHOUR NUMBER

Spike-4 drives are needed to move 4 hexes in SWN, and require TL5, so we can assign a population of billions and TL 5 to the two homeworlds, which are also Regional Hegemons. Races will include humans and also hochog, renamed and described as if they were aslan – the Proud Warrior Race is such a classic SF trope that almost every game has it, and SWN is no exception.

SAVAGE WORLDS / 5150

The above topics don’t really matter in SW or 5150, and neither game needs much about them beyond a little narrative. The only problem with 5150 is that it’s not immediately obvious how to do aslan, but to start with I’ll just give them +1 Rep for being the Proud Warrior Race.

As regards Savage Worlds, I rule out High-Space at this point because it’s grounded in transhumanism, and CT/Dark Nebula aren’t, so the Sci Fi Companion is a better fit for this particular game. I make a note that natives of Maadin and Kuzu might have the High-Tech (Minor) Hindrance under the SW SFC, and that jumps are only possible along mapped routes. On the racial front, we have humans and rakashans; those are the only two races obviously needed, and the boardgame is about a war between the two, so it seems reasonable for the rakashan racial hostility to be directed at humans.

THE ARIONIAD

As usual, I’m feeling lazy, and rather than create new characters for the SW implementation of the Nebula, I’ll reactivate Arion and company, setting Gordon’s as yet undocumented civilisation in a planet-less system in the Dark Nebula itself. Daanarni becomes the aslan name for Antares, Halfway becomes the orbital station at Hasara, and I’m sure I can retcon in other stuff easily enough when I need it. The Arioniad’s riff of a loose alliance of worlds threatened by a human empire fits best with the Mizah cluster facing off against the Solomani Confederation; good luck, guys.