No Estimated Time of Return

Corinth, 4 months later…

A grizzled Scout veteran sits behind a desk in an office. There is a knock at the door.

"Come," he calls. Arion enters and stands to attention – or, at least, what passes for that in the Corinthian Scout Service.

"You sent for me, sir?"

"Yes. Sit." The veteran flicks the graphics on his desktop to one side and gives Arion his full attention.

"I want to discuss your next assignment with you," Arion’s superior begins.

"Next assignment? I’ve mustered out, sir."

"I’m activating your reserve status and assigning you to Intelligence. Don’t give me that look; you still get to fly around the Galaxy sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong."

"Except now you tell me where that is."

"Exactly."

"And where is it, sir?"

The veteran gestures to scale a starmap projection off his desk and onto the wall.

"Here," he says. "The Celestial Empire. They’re been making expansionist noises recently, and we don’t know enough about them. Between the Gimirri and what you’ve told us about the Imagoes… Well, let’s just say I want to know how much more bad news is coming our way." He sighs.

"It’s hard to see how we can avoid banding the Cluster together into an empire, if only for mutual defence. It’ll take blood spilt before we can make that work, and then both our planets could wind up controlled by these guys."

"Better that than bug food, sir."

"I suppose. Anyway, that’s not your problem. Your problem is to find out what’s going on over there, and get the news back to us."

"May I keep the Dolphin and my current crew, sir?"

"In a sense – you’ll travel as a free trader, and a Corinthian scout doesn’t fit that picture. We’re transferring the AI core and the name to a different hull. Coriander will handle the trading, you’ll handle the ship, you’ll both gather intelligence. I imagine you’ve worked out by now that Dmitri is one of ours; his mission will be to set up a network and safe houses, and feed your reports back to us, so you’ll drop him off on Halfway and leave him to dig in. You’ll commence by infiltrating the Combine, which will give you a good reason to wander around. Any questions?"

"No sir."

"Very good. I’ll have the details sent to your comm. Dismissed."

Magic in Irongrave

Last time on Savage Saturday, I looked at Wild Cards and Extras. This time, powers. The Irongrave campaign permits three Arcane Backgrounds; Magic, Miracles and Weird Science (this last to create all the minor magic items that lie around in an old school fantasy game). Those who choose Miracles must abide by their religion’s tenets, or their powers will be degraded or even removed. Those who choose Magic are not limited in that way, but can injure themselves if the spell fails badly.

Magic is fuelled by power points. Most casters have 10, and nobody below Legendary has more than 30. Most spells cost 3 to cast for 18 seconds, and a further 1 per 6 seconds after that.

Spellcasters have various ranks: Novice, Seasoned, Veteran, Heroic and Legendary. The detectable difference between them is that there are some spells only a high-level spellcaster can use. For example, if a caster uses Fly, you know he must be at least Veteran.

These five ranks are mapped to Apprentice, Journeyman, Master, Grand Master and Archmage respectively for Arcane Background (Magic or Weird Science); the equivalents for Arcane Background (Miracles) are Acolyte, Deacon, Priest, Bishop – there is no specific title for a Legendary clergyman.

The most effective way for a spellcaster to demonstrate their rank is to learn Shape Change, because what you can turn into is limited by rank. In fact, the only reliable way to prove Archmage status is to shapeshift into a Great White Shark.

WHAT EVERYONE KNOWS

  • Spellcasters fuel their effects from their personal mana.
  • Arcane spellcasters can injure themselves if the casting fails, divine ones lose their powers if they stray from their vows.
  • There are some spells which only the more powerful spellcasters can use.
  • Most spellcasters can’t keep a typical spell going for more than a minute or so.
  • Some spellcasters can heal you so long as the injury is less than an hour old, but they can’t bring you back from the dead.
  • Use of the Puppet or Zombie powers is illegal; Puppet because it can compel you to commit acts against your will, and Zombie because nobody wants to see their granny raise from the grave as a mouldering corpse.

THE IMPLICATIONS

  • Most formal magical schools require students to learn Shape Change. The final examination for promotion to the next rank includes demonstrating which animal shapes you can assume.
  • Secure locations are set up to preclude access by the Burrow, Fly, Invisibility, Puppet, Shape Change or Teleport powers.

SITE SECURITY 101

  • To detect Puppet and Shape Change, security at an important fixed location includes one or more spellcasters, who scan those entering with Detect Arcana. The more worried you are about Conceal Arcana, the better these casters are.
  • As a defence against Invisibility, the approach to the location should include dog (to smell the intruder), floors covered with flour or water (to make his footsteps visible), squeaky floorboards (to make his footsteps audible), etc.
  • Defending against Burrow means there can be no areas of raw earth in sensitive locations. Stone or wood are preferred.
  • Thwarting the Flying intruder simply requires a site with no airborne access – common methods include sites deep within a building with no windows, or underground.

Logris and Camber

Players being what they are, and Irongrave being a sandbox campaign, at some point they will stray beyond the city and the dungeon. So, I zoomed out one level and did a rough draft, which you see below. Hexes on this map are 25 miles across rather than the usual 5 miles.

Logris01

LOGRIS

In the time of the PCs’ grandfathers, Logris was invaded by Neustrians from the south. Most nobles are still Neustrian, and most commoners are still Logrian; but two generations on, intermarriage is starting to break down the barriers between classes and nationalities.

  • Area: 24,898 square miles (46 hexes, 10 of which heavily populated).
  • Average Population Density: 40 per square mile.
  • Total Population: 995,929; 7% urban, 93% rural.
  • Cities (Population): Kaerlud (17,963), Cantwareburh (14,371), Eborakon (12,934), Deva (11,640), Irongrave (10,476). Eborakon is off-map to the north, at the other end of the Great North Road.
  • Ruler: King Enricus the Scholar, Lion of Justice. Enricus’ heir apparent is his oldest son, Wilmar.
  • Languages: Logrian (the Common Tongue); Neustrian (the Noble Tongue); Urosman (language of the long-fallen Empire of the Wolf, still used by scholars).

CAMBER

Camber is populated by orcs, the original inhabitants of both Logris and Camber (then simply called Camber) over a millenium ago, who were pushed west out of the best agricultural land by the Empire of the Wolf. When the empire fell, humans from the south-east moved into the power vacuum, settling in large numbers and renaming their lands Logris. The orcs, and their allies the goblins, have neither forgotten that Logris was originally theirs, nor forgiven those who displaced them.

  • Area: 3,789 square miles (7 hexes, 2 of which heavily populated).
  • Average Population Density: 53 per square mile.
  • Total Population: 200,810; 4% urban, 96% rural.
  • City (Population): Caerdydd (8,066).
  • Rulers: Cadwgan, Lord of Cynon (hex 0304); Gruffyd, Lord of Mathrafal (hex 0402).
  • Languages: Orcish (“the Black Speech”)

By the way: In my mind, at least, the orcs are neanderthals, who survived longer in this universe than in ours.

Mid-Course Corrections

Most of my regular gaming slots are being usurped by family and work for other things at the moment; so I need to refocus on what I can play while travelling, or during my lunch break.

The things that work well for this are generating background, Classic Traveller, and dungeon crawls, so you can expect to see more of those. CT is particularly good because of the lined-paper battlemat for combat.

Which brings me to another musing; at what point have I changed enough of CT that it isn’t CT any more? Currently I’ve replaced Book 1 with Savage Worlds, and I’m in the process of replacing much of Books 2 and 3 with Stars Without Number. I don’t use the Official Traveller Universe any more; haven’t done that for years. The only things that look likely to survive at this point are some of the background feel, and the random encounter tables.

It’s like William’s Axe, which I saw on display in a museum in Normandy; the handle and the head have both been replaced many times, so in what way is it still his axe?

What are the defining aspects of CT for you?

Arion’s Log, 135-3011 to 176-3011

Arion continues to meander across the Imagoes subsector during this 7 week period, before exiting it, bound for Corinth.

I did dice through this, with the upshot that the crew made a killing on cybernetics parts on Indiarza, and had a wide range of encounters, only one of which resulted in a fight – since that was two fugitives armed with knives trying to stow away, versus Our Heroes with guns and body armour, it was a one-sided affair and soon over. None of those individually seemed worth a post.

The Dolphin leaves the subsector with 9,219,214 Credits on hand; I’ll dock them 600k for replacing the air/raft on their way home, leaving them with a cash balance of Cr 8,619,214.

The Arioniad so far has shown me that Classic Traveller works really well as a portable, solo game. With Flanf’s dice roller and a PDF of the rules, it’s entirely feasible to run a whole campaign on my laptop in my lunch hour. However, without a referee to inject adventures, CT becomes an exercise in world-building and trading, with little in the way of conflict.

That is too much like the day job for me, so the Dolphin is moving on again, into an experiment with Stars Without Number. Watch for The Arioniad Season 3: Heart of the Scorpion, coming soon to a monitor near you.

The Chosen

“I loved it when one day a player of mine said, “I polymorph myself into a troll and run out into the street after the thief.”

Another player said, “Dude, you can’t go out there like that!”

And the first player replied, “Don’t worry about it! This is Ptolus — they see this stuff all the time.”

I knew then that the first player really got Ptolus.”

- Monte Cook, A Player’s Guide to Ptolus

The thing that intrigues me most about Monte Cook’s Ptolus setting is that everything is driven by the Rules As Written of D&D 3rd Edition.

As my poison of choice is Savage Worlds, one of the things I shall be exploring in Irongrave is: What does a Savage Worlds setting look like if the conceits of the setting are the conceits of the Rules As Written? This will be my focus for the next few Savage Saturdays.

The first thing that springs to mind is the split between Wild Cards (PCs and major NPCs) and Extras (mooks and cannon-fodder). In the setting, people will know this, and might know which they are. This calls to mind the Bene Gesserit of Dune, who sift people to find the true humans, and the Birthright D&D setting.

There’s a third category, Allies – Extras (or possibly Wild Card NPCs) who are attached to the PCs. They differ from normal Extras in having a chance to “level up” after adventures. Some Wild Cards can also share power effects or bennies with their allies.

In-game, the best ways to tell whether someone is a Wild Card are to cast Fear on them (Extras always Panic, Wild Cards may Panic but usually do something else instead) or to injure them seriously (Wild Cards keep going after Extras have been incapacitated).

WHAT EVERYONE KNOWS

  • Most people (and other beings) are ordinary.
  • Some people – the Chosen – are inherently stronger, tougher, faster, smarter, and luckier than others. However, they are not invulnerable or immortal, nor is any race or social class favoured; anyone could be Chosen.
  • There is no infallible way to tell whether someone is Chosen or not; the most reliable predictor is how they respond to terrifying situations or severe injuries.
  • The best way for an ambitious but normal person to improve themselves is to ally themselves with one of the Chosen.
  • The worst monsters (vampires, dragons etc.) are Chosen.

THE IMPLICATIONS

  • If you want something important done, you use the Chosen to do it. They are more likely both to survive and to succeed. Over time, therefore, the Chosen have come to dominate positions of power.
  • Scars and a reputation for courage command respect. Improbable survival in the face of wounds, or exceptional courage, are good indicators that you are Chosen.
  • If you want to know whether someone is Chosen or not, you subject them to a series of terrifying experiences (much less likely to kill them than injuries). The ones who do something other than Panic are Chosen; most Chosen identified by this method have phobias or some mark of fear such as white streaks in their hair. However, some of the Chosen go berserk under stress, so the tests are best administered from a safe distance.
  • If you are not Chosen, but still ambitious, you try to find one of the Chosen and join his or her retinue; your chances of glory, gold and increased prowess are much higher. Of course, your chance of dying horribly is much higher too.
  • If you become well-known as one of the Chosen, you may start to attract normal people as retainers. These will be motivated by ambition, greed, or glory.

All of this leads naturally into a discussion of the pantheon – who Chooses these people, and why? That needs a bit more thought.

Irongrave and Environs

The lure of the old-school hex map proved irresistible after all, so I made one for the region around Irongrave. I’m using Hexographer for the maps, placing terrain according to the Welsh Piper’s hex-based campaign rules, and applying places of interest based both on what’s been established in the campaign so far, and the Houses of the Lost chapter in Red Tide.

I started with Greywulf’s advice for a sandbox campaign; place an adventure in the hex where the PCs start (Irongrave), then one in each hex around that, and then build out one hex at a time depending on where they go. I moved some of the adventures around, though, since one place of interest per hex made the map look too crowded.

The map (a work in progress) currently looks like this:

Irongrave01

In the mediaeval Europe I’m using as inspiration, and indeed in present-day Western Europe, the average distance between villages is 2-4 kilometres; so each of the hexes marked as farmland (green with a pattern of brown stripes) actually has half-a-dozen villages in it. The only game setting I know that reflects this properly is Harn.

I’ve also advanced the timeline to 1111 AD, so that the campaign is now based on the 12th century in our world. This is mainly because Britain is more interesting to me after the Norman Conquest than in the run-up to it. It also makes it easier to adapt higher-level maps from the map at ADMC. This means the King of Logris is currently Henricus the Scholar (Henry Beauclerc), the Lion of Justice; a well-educated man known for legal and financial reform. His heir apparent is his eldest son, Wilmar (William Adelin).

Meanwhile, the leaders of the main orc tribes of Camber are borrowed from Welsh kings of the time, and so are called Cadwgan and Gruffyd. However, in this parallel universe, the Marcher Barons control less of Camber than they did historically.

I’ve been hankering to run the HeroQuest scenarios as a campaign again for a while, so I’ll use those, as previously advertised. I have a series of actual face-to-face sessions coming up over the next few months (Yay!); I’ll let you know how those go.

Review of Venture by 0One Games

IN A NUTSHELL

A dungeon crawl boardgame by 0One Games, essentially a re-imagining of the old Games Workshop/Milton Bradley favourite, HeroQuest. Available as a PDF download to print and assemble, or (hopefully soon) as a "proper" boardgame.

As in HeroQuest, a party of up to four adventurers enters a dungeon in each quest to achieve an objective.

WHAT’S IN THE DOWNLOAD

I went for the travelmate edition, which differs from the regular one in having counters rather than standees to cut out. (I plan to print them on big sticky labels, and stick them to foamcore board to make more durable components.)

This has 10 files in it, containing:

Boards: Venture has six boards, each 9" by 9" and split over two pages. These contain an entrance hall, a hall of pillars, and boards with one, two, three and four rooms on them, respectively. There are no corridors as such, probably because they’d make the layout too big; as it is, every piece of every tile is an encounter area. Doors, traps and furniture are represented by counters, so have no fixed positions on the boards. Each scenario uses 2-6 of these modular boards in a different configuration. The file also contains a Decks Board, where the four card decks needed for play are laid out.

Bonus Materials: This file is intended to be printed on heavier card stock, and assembled to form a box full of trays to store the other components. I’ll probably get a plastic box and some bags for that purpose. There is also a sheet of stickers to convert ordinary dice into the game’s special dice. More on those later.

Cards: Two files here, one with 14 pages of cards for equipment, expendables (such as potions), spells, events, and initiative, and one with the card backs. You could go nuts adding your own extra cards.

Counters: Two files again, one with markers for traps, lost hit points, and the disembodied spirits of the adventurers, and another with counters for heroes, monsters, doors and furniture. If you get the normal edition, the second one is replaced with standees for those items, which you can also buy separately if you change your mind. Or you could use all those miniatures you have lying around.

Evil Keeper’s Screen: Reference charts for the EK, which you assemble into a GM’s screen.

Hero and Monster Sheets: Cards for the four heroes (human barbarian, human thief, elven wizard, dwarven fighter) and the five ordinary monsters (orc, ogre, kobold, skeleton, zombie). The monster cards have summaries of their statistics, and the hero cards also have places to park counters for hit points lost, equipment, and spells cast. The boss monsters – death knight, evil mage, and chaos fighter – are handled differently as their statistics are variable.

Rulebook: 15 pages of rules, covering movement, combat and spells. The rules are boardgame-level, so you’ll have no trouble picking them up. Each figure’s statistics are defined as a number of dice; your Move score is how many squares you can move, and combat and spellcasting are resolved by dice rolls. Moves cannot be diagonal; attacks can only be diagonal if you have the right equipment.

Quest Sheets: Ten ready-to-play quests, each with a map layout, statistics for the Boss, traps and any non-standard rules. There are more quests free to download at 0One Games, and expansions for the game are starting to appear too.

LIKES AND DISLIKES

Liked:

  • Heroes can’t be permanently killed by low-grade monsters; as in games like Guild Wars, being killed by one of these means your disembodied spirit has to move to a shrine and respawn.
  • Heroes can rest to recover hit points.
  • Each time the heroes rest, respawn, or find some treasure, the dungeon’s Boss gets stronger. This means that if they lose too many fights, or clean out the entire dungeon, the Boss can become undefeatable – and he CAN kill heroes permanently.
  • The Evil Keeper lays out all the map tiles at the start of the game, but not the doors, monsters or furniture. The heroes thus know the extent and shape of the dungeon, but not how they’ll get into each corner, or what they will find there.
  • Campaign mode, in which heroes can keep equipment from dungeon to dungeon… but the more they keep, the stronger the Boss gets.

Disliked:

  • Each board is split over two sheets of paper; they have to be printed and assembled. I’ll get over it; if necessary I’ll recreate the boards and print them and the counters using "shrink to fit". So there.
  • The custom dice. These are 6-sided dice of three different types, which grant a success 2, 3 or 4 times out of 6, respectively. This just feels clunky as a mechanic. It has the advantages of requiring almost no arithmetic (which would be needed for die roll modifiers) and fewer dice than if all of them had the same chance of success. I don’t like it, though.
  • The quests don’t link together in an overall campaign. That was one of the best things about HeroQuest for me. Easy enough to fix, I suppose.

This looks like a serviceable enough game. My main interest was in using it as a source of additional dungeon tiles and scenarios for other games, so my slight disappointment in it is unjust, as that isn’t really what it’s designed for – 0One do a very snazzy line of dungeon tiles already. I can’t see a way to play it solo, but maybe it’s one for the holidays – I can play it with the family over Christmas.

This sort of dungeon crawl game has a lot of devotees, in the UK, USA and Europe, so I expect it to do well. I shall follow the expansions with interest.

Arion’s Log, 132-3011 to 134-3011

Arion, Coriander and Dmitri were last seen captured by the Battle Dress Dude and his half-dozen accomplices, who wish to relieve them of their money. Now read on…

A more than somewhat singed Arion and Dmitri are in a dingy, improvised cell when the door opens, and a dishevelled Coriander is pushed in. The door slams and locks behind her.

Actually, something I got wrong last time was that flamers ignore armour. This would make our heroes even more singed. I’ll chalk that up to experience and press on.

"Are you OK?" asks Arion. "They didn’t try to… well…"

"Force themselves on me? A bit. But I can Lower more Traits than you might think. They didn’t like that much." She rubs bruises on her arms and face. "Also, they are bound to get suspicious at some point."

A scrabbling noise comes from the ceiling, followed by dust, and then – as the trio glance upwards – by a fist-sized metal spider. It makes its way carefully down the wall, and across the floor to Arion.

"Hello, Dolphin," says Arion. "Took your time, but we’re glad to see you all the same."

The spider responds by using one leg to scratch a message in the dust, which it erases after giving them a moment to read it.

"Police on way."

"You used the comm to flag weapons violations, yes?" The spider nods by rocking itself backwards and forwards on its legs. "What’s that lump on you?"

"IED," the spider scribbles.

"We’d better look for something solid to hide in," says Dmitri. "The police will have whatever they think they need to deal with battle dress and plasma guns, and they might come in shooting."

"Hadn’t thought of that."

"Not the only thing you didn’t think of today." Arion opens his mouth to reply, then decides Dmitri has a point. The spider scribbles again.

"Will come in shooting. Distraction. Escape."

"You know this how?" asks Arion.

"Track record – press," the spider writes.

"Dmitri," says Coriander, "What would you use to deal with battle dress and plasma guns?"

"Anti-tank missiles."

"So when you say something solid, you mean really solid."

"Oh yes."

"Escape how?" asks Arion.

"Sewer." It marks an X on the floor. "Tamp unit stand back. Unit 2 in pipe."

The spider rolls over, and Arion scurries to cover it with the heaviest stuff he can find.

"You in the warehouse," booms another amplified voice. "Throw out your weapons and come out with your hands up."

A reaction roll here for the desperadoes. 8; dithering.

"We have hostages," calls the leader.

"If we die, the government gets the ship," Dmitri points out.

"Over there, in that corner," calls Arion. "Cover your ears. Fire in the hole!"

The spider sets off a small shaped charge, blowing a hole in the floor and the pipe beneath.

The police open fire. The brigands return fire. Arion pushes his friends into the sewer, then follows. Below, a second spider waits to lead them back to the ship.

"And what valuable lesson have we learned today?" shouts Dmitri, over the ringing in everyone’s ears.

"We need bigger guns," Arion shouts back. "Really big frakkin’ guns."

Coriander and the spider look at each other, and shake their heads in despair.

Trading: Once everyone has cleaned up, and been interviewed by the police, Coriander is offered 30 tons of Cybernetics Parts at 70% of the usual 250,000 per ton. The next port of call, Indiarza, is Non-Industrial, with a +4 resale DM, so that looks like a good buy. She takes 7 tons, and pays Cr 1,225,000, plus a Cr 52,500 handling fee for splitting the cargo.

The Dolphin leaves Esusce behind without further encounters or regret, and heads for Indiarza with 7 tons of cybernetics parts and Cr 2,297,214 in negotiable instruments of some sort.

ADMC

Irongrave was loosely based on the Welsh Marches c. 1100 AD.

ADMC, by Ville Makkonen, takes the whole of Europe in the first half of the 12th century AD as a setting for a D&D campaign.

The most impressive part is the Hexographer map of Europe, at 50 km per hex (call it 30 miles).

Outstanding stuff, I shall watch with interest.