Review: The One Ring

The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild

The Lord of the Rings was my introduction to fantasy literature, and it still holds a special place in my affections. This product is the latest RPG set in that world, written by Francesco Nepitello and published by Sophisticated Games and Cubicle 7 Entertainment. It consists of two maps, an Adventurer’s Book for players, and a Loremaster’s Book for the GM.

IN A NUTSHELL

An RPG set in Middle-Earth shortly after (and in the same geographical area as) the events depicted in The Hobbit, but before the start of The Lord of the Rings.

Character generation is effectively point-buy, driven by choices of culture and calling ("character class"). Equipment, economics and combat are de-emphasised, with the focus being on the storyline and its spiritual and physical impact.

Evokes the feeling of Middle Earth well; would suit Explorers and Socialisers better than Killers and Achievers. Good if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, but munchkins need not apply.

THE MAPS

I turned to these first. The Adventurer’s Map is very much in the style of the endpapers of The Lord of the Rings itself, and covers the area from Rivendell to the Iron Hills east-west, and Mount Gundabad to Dol Goldur north-south, with a bit of extra space all around those. The players get a copy of this initally, representing what their characters know about the Wilderland, and they are expected to take notes or write on the map with what they find.

The Loremaster’s Map covers the same area, but is overlaid with a 10 mile hexgrid to regulate movement and has a number of places of mystery marked by runes. This region is about 600 x 500 miles, roughly the size of a European country.

The maps are included both in the main books at 8" by 10", and as separate files of twice those dimensions – useful if you have an A3 printer or a copy shop at hand. I’m not sure what size they are in the boxed set (I bought the PDF), but they’re legible printed at shrink-to-fit on A4 paper.

THE ADVENTURER’S BOOK

This is the players’ volume, and as you’d expect covers character creation, setting information, and basic game mechanics. As is common for works based on licensed properties, the text is peppered with quotations from the source material which illustrate the point at hand.

Part 1, Introduction (22 pages)

This explains what an RPG is, and provides an example of play, as is traditional for such chapters in RPGs. It also notes that this is the first of three planned sets, each of which covers roughly one-third of the timespan between the end of The Hobbit and the end of The Lord of the Rings, and each of which is set in a different area of Middle Earth. This set is geographically centred on Mirkwood, and covers 2946 TA to roughly 2970 TA. Intentionally or not, this ties it in nicely with the forthcoming hobbit movies.

Smaug is dead; the Necromancer has been driven from Dol Goldur; Aragorn has just turned 15; and the dwarves are  back in Erebor. The Free Peoples for this set consist of Bardings, Beornings, dwarves of Erebor, elves of Mirkwood, hobbits of the Shire and woodmen of Wilderland – these are the available races and cultures for PCs.

Next comes a section on how to play; what the players and loremaster (GM) are expected to do, and the structure of the game, which is divided into adventuring phases and fellowship phases. The game makes more sense if you understand those to start with, so I’ll digress into them a little.

The campaign effectively begins with a fellowship phase. Each adventure then consists of an adventuring phase, followed by a fellowship phase. Most games have these, but TOR is explicit about it, possibly because it is aimed at beginning players and those recently weaned off videogames as well as more experienced gamers.

The adventuring phase is what most RPG players would understand as the scenario; your characters are presented with a series of problems by the GM, which they must overcome; during this phase the GM has narrative control. The fellowship phase covers the downtime after the mission; characters spend the experience points they gained while adventuring, and gain narrative control to explain what they are doing before the next adventure. A full adventure is expected to take 2-3 sessions of play to resolve, most of it in the adventuring phase, but with the last half-session covering the fellowship phase.

The book deconstructs The Hobbit to illustrate these; for example, the first segment of the story has an adventuring phase taking the hobbit and the dwarves from Hobbiton to Rivendell, followed by a fellowship phase resting up in Rivendell.

The chapter then moves into detailed explanations of the character sheet and the dice, including the basic game mechanic (roll a bunch of dice and compare the total to a target number – see below for details). This is another game which, like WFRP3, uses special dice; 6d6 and 1d12, with the 6 on the d6 and the 11 and 12 on the d12 having special meanings. Unlike WFRP3, TOR explains them well enough that you can substitute the d6 and d12 you undoubtedly have lying around.

Part 2, Characters (54 pages)

As you’d expect, this is the biggest chapter. To create a character, the player first selects his native culture (dwarf, elf, hobbit, or one of several different types of men); each culture bestows a blessing on its children. Cultures are described in terms of where they are based, how they look, their standard of living, why their people might go adventuring, what they think of other cultures, and the likely age of adventurers from that culture. Each culture also grants its scions skill levels in a number of skills, including weapon skills; one or more of these may be selected as "favoured".

The player next chooses two specialities, a background (which can be diced for if desired), another favoured skill, and two distinctive features. The background describes the character’s formative experiences before becoming an adventurer, and the features are things which would be advantages/edges or disadvantages/hindrances in other games – mainly there to flesh out the roleplaying aspects of the character.

Thirdly, the player chooses favoured attributes, a calling and favoured skills, spends any previous experience to buy more skills, and generates scores for Endurance, Hope, Valour and Wisdom – this leads to a final choice, that of a starting reward or virtue. The calling would be a character class or archetype in most games; it defines what skills your character will be best at (including two more favoured skills), a trait (feat/edge) that gives him special capabilities, and a weakness which the forces of evil can exploit.

Favoured attributes are Body, Heart and Wits, much as in the Tri-Stat system. The character’s background sets the basic scores for these; the player can now increase one of them by 3, another one by 2, and the third by one point. Endurance and Hope are set by the PC’s culture and Heart.

Finally, the player records starting equipment and fatigue. All characters are assumed to have travelling gear, one weapon for each weapon skill known at level 1+, one suit of armour, one shield, and one piece of headgear. I welcome this approach, because I feel that time spent buying gear is time wasted, which could have been spent on actual play; but Your Mileage May Vary. There are two or three choices for armour, shields, axes, swords and so on – equipment is of Dark Ages types (no plate armour, for instance) and what you use is more about your home culture than your money pouch.

The game has an interesting approach to character wealth and resources; your culture determines your economic status, and thus what you can afford to buy. Status moves from Poor, to Frugal, and then to Martial, Prosperous and Rich. A martial status, for example, means you live in an austere manner, can pay for simple accommodation and meals at need, and can borrow a mount from someone if in your home territory. A prosperous character could buy a round of ales at the tavern without worrying about it, but a frugal one would have trouble doing so.

Linguistics interests me more than my players, but we are both catered for; everyone speaks Westron, the Common Tongue, and depending on their culture they may speak other languages too.

As in WFRP3, but to a lesser extent, the adventuring party is in a sense a character too. The players decide where their fellowship was formed, and each of them picks one other character as their focus (as Sam was focussed on Frodo, say). The fellowship has one Fellowship Point per member; these can be spent by members to recover Hope. A fellowship focus lets your character recover Hope without spending fellowship points, but leaves him vulnerable to gaining Shadow (see later) if his focus is injured or slain.

Part 3, Fundamental Characteristics (35 pages)

This explains the care and feeding of attributes and skills. When using a favoured skill, the character may add the relevant attribute to his dice score.

Among the attributes, which by now range from 1-12, Body helps combat, Heart helps resist fear and corruption, and Wits drives parrying and initiative. These give the general impression of the character.

There are 18 skills divided up by attribute, covering combat, interpersonal, and crafting prowess. Traits cover the same ground as D&D 3E feats; each allows you an advantage (usually automatic success at a task) under certain circumstances. Distinctive features define the character’s personality and appearance – you may be Grim, for example, or Curious.

Endurance is your character’s resistance to physical stress; when he is hurt, he loses Endurance, and when his Endurance total is less than or equal to the Encumbrance of his normal equipment load, he becomes Weary, meaning that d6 rolls of 1-3 no longer count towards success. If Endurance reaches zero, the character collapses. Endurance is replenished by rest and food.

Hope is resistance to mental stress, and Shadow (initially zero) and measures the impact of despair and doubt on the character. When a character’s Hope is less than or equal to his Shadow, he becomes Miserable. If Hope is reduced to zero, the character is hopeless and will flee from danger or distress. Hope is recovered by spending fellowship points, or at the end of a game session if the character’s focus is still healthy – if the focus is hurt or killed, the character gains Shadow. I like this rule; it reflects the focus of the source material on the impact of mental stress as well as physical wounds.

Treasure and standing are also treated in this chapter. Treasure hoards are given a rating from 1 to 1,000; a rating of 2, for instance, lets you live at Rich status for a month, while one of 500 is enough for you to live at a Prosperous status for the rest of your life. Each point of treasure increases your Encumbrance by one.

Standing ranges from 0 to 6 and represents how well you are thought of in your home culture – essentially, your reputation and status as a person. 0 is a homeless vagrant, 6 is a king.

Part 4, Character Development (28 pages)

This is about character improvement, as you might guess. There are several different types of advancement, each tracked differently.

Characters get one experience point per session, plus an extra one for substantial progress towards their current goal. These are used to improve Wisdom, Valour or weapon skills. Initially, the player set either Wisdom or Valour to a score of 2, and the other one to a score of 1. Starting at a score of 2, each time Wisdom or Valour is increased, the character receives a boon; this means he starts with one boon, which I forgot to mention above.

Boons may be virtues, such as Confidence, which grants +2 Hope, or rewards, such as Cunning Make, which reduces the encumbrance of an item. Some are available to everyone, but most are dependent on the character’s culture – only a Beorning can be a Brother to Bears, for example, which increases Endurance and grants superior senses at night. Virtues are improvements to the character himself, while rewards are improvements to his equipment.

Each time a character uses a skill in a distinctive and memorable manner, whether he succeeds or fails, he gains an advancement point. These are used to increase skill levels in the fellowship phase of a scenario.

Part 5, Adventuring Mechanics (20 pages)

Before I start on mechanics, you need to know that it matters whether a character is fit and healthy, Miserable or Weary, as this affects the outcome.

The basic mechanic is that when a character tries to do something, the GM tells him a target number (ranging from 10 to 20)and what skills are relevant; the player then rolls as many d6 ("success dice") as his level in that skill, and the d12 (the "feat die") – note that since you always roll a feat die, you can always succeed, even if unskilled; it’s just not very likely. NPC opponents do likewise, but read some results differently than PCs or their allies.

A score of 12 on the d12 (the G rune on the special die) is the best possible result for the PCs. It is an automatic success for a PC, and the lowest possible result (counting as 0) for their adversaries. An 11 (the Eye of Sauron on the special die) is the worst possible result for PCs (counting as 0), and the best possible result for adversaries (automatic success). A Miserable character who rolls an 11 temporarily loses control due to a bout of madness.

The game’s special d6 show the numbers 1-3 in outline; these count as zero if the character is Weary, regardless of the number rolled. Natural scores of 6 on any die, marked with an elven symbol on the special dice, define degrees of success; assuming the total score is enough to succeed, a single 6 indicates a great success, and two or more indicate an exceptional and memorable success.

Long distance travel between scenarios is handled in an abstract way. The players say where they want to go to, and what role each of their fellowship occupies – look-out, scout, guide etc.; the GM tells them how long it will take and how many fatigue tests they must make on the way. A roll of 11 on the feat die during any test indicates some sort of hazardous event, which requires a skill test from the character occupying the relevant role; but NPC encounters are planned in advance by the GM – note that in this game, meeting a potentially friendly NPC is an encounter, but meeting hostile monsters is a hazard.

In combat, each character declares a stance, which may be Forward, Open, Defensive or Rearward. A character can only choose a Rearward stance, which is required for missile fire, if at least two others have chosen something else. The stance determines the target number both for the character’s attacks and those of his foes, and the initiative sequence. This is a nice mechanic; if you choose Forward, you hit more often and go first, but you are easier to hit as well.

Rolls to hit are weapon skill checks. A hit in combat inflicts damage equal to the weapon’s damage number, plus the character’s Body score if he got an outstanding success; the target rolls as many d6 as his armour’s protection rating, plus a feat die, and if the total equals or exceeds the incoming damage, the armour absorbs it. Notice this means that armour is less effective when you are Weary.

Part 6, Fellowship Phase (18 pages)

The default assumption of the game is that a fellowship (party or band of adventurers) goes on one adventure per year, which takes an entire season to execute; and then rests up until the end of the year. (Obviously, one is free to adjust this as one sees fit; a fellowship phase might be only a few days.) Characters may pass the fellowship phase at home, or in a temporary sanctuary; they need not all be together. There is a fellowship phase at the end of each year, which may or may not be the same as the one at the end of the last adventure.

In this phase, the character may spend experience points to improve his Wisdom, Valour or weapon skills. It is cheaper to improve lower levels of any of those. He may also choose one undertaking – meet a patron, gain a new distinctive feature (such as fine clothing), attempt to reduce his Shadow rating through skill checks, raise his standard of living (say, from Poor to Frugal) or Standing by spending treasure, or turn a newly-discovered location into a sanctuary for future fellowship phases.

In a sanctuary, it is easier to recover from the effects of the Shadow, but if you end the year there, you lose one level of Standing unless you spend treasure to retain it.

Appendices and Index (17 pages)

Here we find pregenerated characters, one for each culture; a blank character sheet, and the index. The pregens are a necessity in my opinion; character generation is requires a number of decisions informed by a fairly detailed understanding of the setting, so anyone looking to just jump in and play needs them.

THE LOREMASTER’s BOOK

In general, the Loremaster’s Book looks again at the rules of the Adventurer’s Book, from the GM’s viewpoint. As with the players’ book, it seems written to cater for the new GM more than the experienced one, which is no bad thing, but does mean I tended to skip through it at a fair pace, thinking (perhaps wrongly) that I knew a lot of the content already.

Part 1, the Role of the Loremaster (3 pages)

This is your standard how-to-be-a-GM explanation. It stresses the need for the GM to know the setting well, preferably better than all the players; I’d struggle with that personally, as my players include a number very well versed in Tolkien’s works. It also emphasises the opportunities to fill in the gaps in Tolkien’s narratives, noting that the Wilderland is introduced in The Hobbit, but gets almost no attention after that.

Part 2, Game Mechanics

This chapter opens with further advice for the GM on how to run the adventuring phase of a scenario, including preparation, location and season, NPCs and plot. The intent is that small events tie together to reveal a greater story arc.

Second, task resolution, including the usual topics that need to be tackled for this; selecting skills and target numbers (the default is 14), opposed and cooperative tasks, and so on.

Third, NPCs ("loremaster characters"). These are treated in a largely narrative way; most interactions are resolved with an old school approach, using conversation and the GM’s knowledge of the character and setting. The GM is encouraged to use the traits and distinctive features from the Adventurer’s Book to create off-the-cuff NPCs, only advancing them to greater levels of detail when necessary. The attributes and skills for an NPC, if and when they become important, are rated depending on what would be reasonable for the character’s role in the encounter. (This resonated with me as it’s pretty much how I run NPCs.)

Then we flip back to tests, which jarred me a little as the NPC section seems to have been inserted partway through the discussion of task resolution. No matter.

Since awarding experience has already been covered in the Adventurer’s Book and earlier in the chapter, we now look at awarding advancement points. Again this isn’t the sequence I would have written things in, but that’s just my preference for grouping all types of advancement together showing through.

Journeys are next. This expands on the explanation given in the Adventurer’s Book, explaining how to calculate the length and time of a journey – time taken depends on terrain as well as distance. This isn’t something I’d want to do on the fly, so I’d suggest that during the previous fellowship phase the players tell the GM where they’re heading next, or that he tells them instead, so the calculations can be done in down time. The GM’s map is colour-coded to show terrain difficulty, which the players’ one is not. The frequency of fatigue tests for long distance travel turns out to depend on the season; travel in winter and you’ll be taking one every three days, for instance.

Hazards are also covered in more detail, although at an abstract level; the GM is expected to tailor them to the adventure. To recap, a hazard is encountered when the players fail their fatigue test and roll an 11 on the feat die. The GM now rolls another feat die to identify which role (scout, guide etc.) the hazard relates to, with a second 11 meaning any role that isn’t covered. If the relevant role isn’t covered, somebody can spend a point of Hope to attempt the test. Monsters Roused – the classic RPG wilderness encounter – happens if a hazard focussed on the Look-Out appears, and then he fails his Awareness check. This is a prime candidate for incorporation into my current games.

The rules also cover what else characters can reasonably attempt while travelling, and some common routes, e.g. Erebor to Beorn’s House (400 miles, 30 days, 5-9 fatigue tests depending on the time of year); each of these is presented with a zoomed-in section of the GM’s map with the route marked on it – nice touch.

Combat is a part of most RPGs, and TOR is no exception. However, this is not a game for the hack-and-slash crowd, not that I have anything against them; combat in TOR is to be avoided, and is expected to happen roughly once every other session. The rules for combat are in the Adventurer’s Book, so this segment is more about when and why the GM would trigger a combat than how it is resolved – note the assumed default situation is heroes forced into combat en route to achieving one of their goals, not seek-and-destroy missions against monsters. Here we learn that the Rearward stance isn’t available if the party is outnumbered more than two to one; what skills to use when setting or avoiding an ambush; how many foes can engage a hero and vice versa. There is also an extended combat example to show the system in play, very useful.

Other sources of injury such as falling are covered here too – while not combat per se, they go naturally with the injury rules, so this makes sense.

As mentioned earlier, random monsters are treated as journey hazards, while encounters offer at least the possibility of support from friendly NPCs. The GM’s view of encounters includes the concept of tolerance, which is how many failed attempts at persuasion the PCs can make before being ejected from the NPC’s presence, possibly under guard. The tolerance of an NPC is either the best Valour or the best Wisdom in the party, depending on whether their culture favours martial prowess or sound judgement. If a member of the party is from the local culture, his Standing is added to the basic tolerance. Some cultures (e.g. elves and dwarves) don’t play nicely together, and in this case tolerance is reduced.

Part 3, the Shadow

Here we find the rules for corruption and the bestiary.

Adventurers garner Shadow points, discussed earlier, through bad experiences, dishonourable deeds, and spending time in places where the Shadow has taken root. A character whose Shadow points equal or exceed his Hope becomes Miserable, and the player relinquishes control to the GM – this section offers the GM options for the character’s behaviour then, depending on circumstances. Each such bout of madness causes the PC to develop a flaw; you’ll recall that in generation each PC wound up with a Shadow weakness, and each is associated with four flaws which develop in sequence. (For example, if your PC is troubled by the Lure of Secrets, he will become first haughty, then scornful, then scheming, and finally treacherous.) The GM can invoke flaws whenever it seems reasonable to make life harder for the PC. The fifth flaw removes the character from play, permanently; elves go over the sea to the west, others go mad and either kill themselves or have to be killed.

Monsters are rated in much the same way as characters, although their skills are broader and less detailed; they also have special abilities such as Fear of Fire or Commanding Voice. Many of these work to modify the monster’s Hate score, which is their equivalent of Hope; when a monster runs out of Hate, it flees from combat. Adventurers may, for example, intimidate the monsters, which lowers their Hate level.

The monsters in the chapter include several flavours of orcs, giant spiders, trolls, giant bats, and wolves, each with their characteristic attitudes, statistics, attacks and defences.

It’s a nice touch, and entirely in keeping with the setting, that monsters are driven by Hate, and heroes by Hope.

Part 4, the Campaign

This chapter begins by skipping through the setting of Middle Earth, with a focus on the time and place of this game. The timeline describes Old Lore (1050-2931 TA), ancient history which the PCs may uncover; Recent Past (2941-2945 TA), which is common knowledge for them; and Gathering Shadows (2946-2951 TA), current and possible future events which they might or might not affect.

After history, the gazetteer; descriptions of the current state of play in the Wilderland – what each nation is like, who’s in charge, and what they’ve done to the place since the Battle of Five Armies.

Next, campaign outlines. The game assumes that the GM has some specific stories to tell, and a specific leitmotif in mind, which he will use to craft the campaign. The section asks some questions intended to bring these into focus, and presents an example structure, complete with goals, location, focus, NPCs, supplementary encounters and chronology.

The heroic heritage rules assume that when a PC dies or retires, a new PC representing a younger friend or relative takes up the burden. This character begins with extra experience, representing the lessons his or her mentor was able to pass on. Heroes who retire, or die heroically, pass on more experience points than those who die less meaningful deaths or succumb to the Shadow.

(The suggested rate of progress for TOR is 4-6 game sessions per year of game time, with surviving characters retiring after about 15 years, call it 75 sessions. For a group which plays weekly, that would be about two years of real time.)

Part 5, Introductory Adventure – the Marsh Bell

As ever, I’ll draw a veil over much of this. It’s a rescue mission with three adventuring components, starting from Esgaroth and showcasing the interpersonal, travel and combat aspects of the game in turn. Like most such scenarios, it’s intended to ease the GM and players into the new rules; there’s an implicit assumption that everyone has read The Hobbit, which is probably true.

CONCLUSIONS

Middle Earth, and thus this game, is an exercise in a limited palette by (say) D&D standards; most characters are human male fighters, with the occasional rare elf, dwarf, thief, warrior woman or wizard, and no clerics. Differentiation between warriors is down to their culture more than anything else. Likewise, monsters are limited to goblins, orcs, spiders, bats, wolves, and non-regenerating trolls.

The game has some nifty mechanics for gear, upkeep, travel and physical and mental stress on the characters. In recent years I’ve become more resistant to learning new rules systems, and was quite prepared to dislike the rules of TOR heartily, but I find they’ve won me over. If I were to run a Middle Earth game in future, I could see myself using the rules as well as the setting, especially since a number of my players are hardcore LOTR fans. (How hardcore? One of them used it as her thesis topic at university and lectures on it internationally to this day.)

The artwork is very nice throughout, with especially evocative covers, although I don’t like the elves’ trademark pointy hats. I have the PDF version (my usual choice for evaluating a game – hard copy comes later, if it inspires me), and there is no printer-friendly version of the text, which would be an issue if I printed it out rather than buying the books.

Overall: This game doesn’t suit my current group of players, largely because low humour and berserk violence are out of place; but if it did suit them, I would run it, and I will absorb some of the mechanics into my current campaigns.

Ben’ fatto, Francesco, complimenti.

Deep Black One Niner – January 3200

As part of my general move to a low-bit diet, I’m parking Heart of the Scorpion, Arion & Co. for now. I want to continue exploring Stars Without Number, but with a zero-preparation approach.
A Deep Black team in the Hydra Sector is the perfect vehicle for this. The sector is already detailed in the core rulebook, and DB teams (introduced in Skyward Steel) allow me to jump directly into the action without needing any solo roleplaying rules or random encounters – or if I do, I’ll merge them in from the numerous THW products on my hard drive.

For characters, I’ll use the Quick NPC statistics on pp. 223-224 of the Core Edition; one Expert (callsign Snakebite), one Psychic (Winter), and two Warriors (Snow Dog and Die-Die). The personalities are recycled – favourite NPCs from earlier campaigns.

Quick NPCs tend to have 2-3 fewer skills than ones generated fully, but in my limited experience that’s how many Culture skills full PCs have, so I’ll ignore that. The Psychic and Warrior Quick NPCs have skills preallocated, and everyone has gear allocated, but I do need to specify skills for the Expert… Snakebite, the nominal team leader by virtue of rank, is a former dropship pilot and has Combat/Projectile-0, Exosuit-0, Navigation-1, Tech/Astronautics-0, Tech/Postech-0, Vehicle/Grav-0 and Vehicle/Space-1. (While doing this, I notice for the first time that the table allows a level 1 Expert three level 0 skills, but the text below offers him four. I’ll go with four, because as stated earlier a full PC would have more skills than a Quick NPC.)

I need nothing more than a mission now, and a roll of 73 gives me the following: A Thing is the token of rulership on this world, and it’s gone missing. If it’s not found rapidly, the existing ruler will be deposed. Evidence left at a Place suggests that an Enemy has it, but extralegal means are necessary to investigate fully.

Randomly selecting the Thing, the Place and the Enemy from those available on Gateway tells me that the Thing is the key to a sealed cache, the Place is the ruins of the ancient jump gate, and the Enemy is Javed Cole the maltech smuggler.

-o0o-

Snakebite marches into the team ready room with the speed and decorum expected of a naval officer in a crisis, to find his people engaged in their normal pursuits in such circumstances; Snow Dog is dozing in a corner, Winter is watching some trashy soap opera, and Die-Die is affectionately cleaning an improbably large gun. She appears to be talking to it, quietly.

“Listen up, we have a mission,” says Snakebite, immediately attracting everyone’s attention.

“The access alarm on the orbital jumpgate just went off. Somebody used the Presidential Key, and President Santos is unhappy because she was nowhere near the gate when it happened. Our objective is to recover the Key before she has to open Republic House in two days’ time, without anyone ever knowing it went missing. Our first step is recon of the gate site for clues. We’re going in covert in a tourist attraction, so leave the heavy stuff at home – that means you, Die-Die. Gear up, we lift in twenty.”

The Pale Imp Tavern

Another nice-looking map from Black Hand Source, this time for a three-story inn. This is much larger than the previous ones at about 150 megabytes.

Inside the zip file, one finds:

  • Battlemats of the building’s interior. These are in both A3 format, if you have access to an A3 printer, or tiled A4 pages in case you don’t. In both sizes you have a choice of black and white or sepia images. The battlemats are at a scale of one metre per square rather than the more usual five feet (1.5m)
  • 3-D isometric view of each floor.
  • Playing-card sized portraits of the NPCs, one set with names, and a duplicate set with blank nameplates for you to fill in with your own NPC names.
  • A file of background information in RTF format, detailing the history of the family which runs the tavern for the last three generations. There’s some odd English in there, but this is not the author’s native language and the meaning is clear from context.

This is a nice product, but it didn’t grab me by the throat like the Dwarven Kingdom and Ancient Cities did. Off to the Shelf of Wonders with it, until another inn is needed in the campaign.

Masks: 1,000 NPCs

Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game is the second offering from Engine Publishing (i.e., the authors of the Gnome Stew blog); this one addresses NPCs rather than plots.

As the first (Eureka – 501 plots) was based on Georges Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations, this one is based on an old Dragon article by C.M. Cline entitled "The 7-Sentence NPC".

Setting aside the foreword, introduction, and contributor biographies, the book has five chapters: Game Mastering Advice, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Modern and Indices.

GAME MASTERING ADVICE

This is the "how to use this book" section, and covers choosing an NPC, how they are described and grouped within the book, how to reskin one for your game, and how to make the NPCs memorable.

THE NPCS: FANTASY, SCI-FI AND MODERN

Each of these umbrella genres has its NPCs divided into Villains, Neutrals and Allies. There are more neutrals than allies or villains, as one might expect.

Each NPC has about a quarter-page writeup, with a name, a number, a one-line description such as "Eccentric Wizard", and paragraphs on his appearance, roleplaying, personality, motivation, background and traits. Roleplaying explains how to portray the character, traits are used in the traits index to find NPCs of a particular type, and the rest are what they say on the tin.

The book describes all the NPCs as human, but there is no reason why they couldn’t be "reskinned" as members of other races, and some of the interior art does so.

As for Eureka, I don’t want to give away the details, so I did roughly a 5% sample, evenly split across the three umbrella genres, to see how usable I thought the NPCs were…

  • Wow! This one’s in my campaign, right now: 1.
  • Hmm, that one’s pretty cool: 17.
  • Yeah, I can use that one I guess: 26.
  • Meh: 4.
  • Drive on, there’s nothing to see here: 0.

Obviously, your mileage may vary; but if these proportions are representative, there are 20 or so NPCs in this book that I have to have in my games – probably as many as my PCs can cope with remembering anyway, with a month between sessions – and several hundred in the "pretty cool" bracket. With those kind of numbers, I can live with the occasional one that doesn’t tickle my fancy.

INDICES

There are four indices, allowing the GM to select NPCs by traits, name, author or groups.

The traits index is probably the most useful for selecting an NPC, but the names one I expect to be most useful in play – once I have noted down, for example, "Guard Captain is Erika Snodgrass, but male" I can look up Erika’s stats whenever the PCs encounter the guard captain, at least until the NPC sticks in my memory.

The groups index is interesting, because I can select (for example) Elite Thieves or Assassination Team and find a group of half a dozen NPCs who collectively would form that group. This is a nice way of setting up (say) rival adventuring parties.

CONCLUSIONS

This is a larger book than its companion, and more focussed at the print market – the PDF has no printer-friendly option, for example.

Like it’s companion, it isn’t going to replace my own stuff, but it takes up residence on my GM’s Shelf of Wonders, where I shall dip into it for occasional inspiration.

Eureka: 501 Plots

Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to Inspire Game Masters is a 314-page book from the authors of Gnome Stew which does pretty much what the title would lead you to expect; it provides 501 adventure plots for you to use or adapt.

Setting aside the introduction, foreword, credits, and contributor biographies, the book consists of five chapters; Game Mastering Advice, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Horror, and Indices.

The plots are evenly divided between Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Horror, and subdivided by Georges Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations, which Polti proposed were the 36 different plots driving all human stories and which are frequently referenced by all manner of writers and students.

(Tolstoy said there were only two; "Go on a quest" and "A stranger comes to town". But I digress.)

GAME MASTERING ADVICE

This chapter is about how to use the book, and is optional. It explains the underlying structure of the plots, how to expand them into adventures and adapt them to your campaign.

The book is rules-agnostic, but the plots rarely turn on a specific skill or spell, so if you have a handful of stock NPCs in your campaign file you’re good to go. (If you don’t, I recommend you change that.)

Most of the plots require no foreshadowing, and can be run in a single session, which will involve 3-5 encounters or scenes and perhaps 4 hours of playing time.

THE PLOTS: FANTASY, SCI-FI AND HORROR

On to the meat of the book; the plots themselves, each of which has a half-page or so of writeup and various tags.

Not wanting to give away the details of the plots, I thought I’d do roughly a 10% sample of each section (the first 15 plots) and divide them by how enthused I am about running them. This is entirely subjective and your mileage may vary. Out of the 60, we have:

  • OMG I have to run this: 2.
  • Hey, that’s cool: 4.
  • I can do something with this: 25.
  • Meh: 14.
  • Not in a million years: 0.

Assuming those are representative, there are about 20 scenarios in the "OMG" category, which would keep me going for a couple of years at my current session frequency by themselves, and about two-thirds of the plots will be usable in some form. 340 plots will keep me going until well after retirement age at that pace.

I found that the Sci-Fi plots were generally weaker than the Fantasy or Horror ones, but that could be a sampling fault or just my personal prejudices.

INDICES

As mentioned above, the plots are divided into Fantasy, Sci-Fi or Horror. These are the umbrella genres and chapter headings, but the plots are also tagged by one or more of 19 subgenres ("Swashbuckling", for example); this is where the index by genre comes in, as you can quickly filter out only the plots which fit (say) a Steampunk game. Not to say that the others won’t. just that they’ll need more adaptation.

The index by tags allows you to filter for all combat-heavy scenarios, all intrigue scenarios, or whatever. I found myself wanting a pivot table which could select, for example, all Steampunk scenarios with religious overtones. I could know up a spreadsheet for that in a few hours, though, if I wanted to, and I’m not sure how you would do it in dead tree or PDF format.

CONCLUSIONS

This is a useful addition to my GM’s Shelf of Wonders, which I can turn to when other inspiration fails so long as I have an hour or two’s warning of a game session. The main value for me will be breaking me out of a rut by providing new ideas; the main disadvantage of the product is the time it will take me to sift through for the perfect scenario – this is what the indices are intended to handle, to be fair, and they may do so.

Marks are straight down the middle; it’s not going to take over this aspect of my gaming life, but I don’t regret buying it and will probably use it from time to time.

Souped-Up Monsters

Compared to most fantasy RPGs, Savage Worlds has a limited number of monster types.

My guess is that this is because games like D&D apply the Sorting Algorithm of Evil; as PCs level up, their goblinoid opponents likewise have to scale up from goblins to orcs to bugbears and so on. D&D 3e gave intelligent monsters levels to compensate for this, and D&D 4e has different variants of the same monster for this reason.

It’s easy to apply trappings to monsters – use the same stats with a different description – but it’s also easy to buff monsters while you do so, much along the same lines I mentioned in the One Page Bestiary. You can:

  • Increase all the creature’s die types by one – this gives +1 Toughness as well each time you do it.
  • Make them Wild Cards.
  • Increase their Size and/or Armour.
  • Apply other weirdness to taste.

For example, a mummies might be Wild Card zombies, with a Weakness to fire. The ancient dust stirred up in combat with them causes an airborne, long-term, minorly debilitating disease as per SW Deluxe p. 87. The zombies themselves might be Soldiers with the Undead monstrous ability applied, if I’m playing away from home.

Stars Without Number Core Edition

Sine Nomine Publications and Mongoose have teamed up to provide the Stars Without Number Core Edition, available in PDF or hardcover, hard copy format. You can still get the original version free here; the cost of the Core Edition (available here), namely $19.99 for the PDF or $39.99 for the hardcover, is offset by about 40 pages of new content, about a 20% increase in page count. Whether that’s worth the money is up to you, but to help you decide, here’s what’s inside.

I’ve already reviewed SWN here, and the Core Edition includes all of that content, pretty much unchanged as far as I could tell. This review is thus focussed on additions and changes.

WHAT’S NEW?

Robots and Mechs (23 pages)

This new chapter introduces rules for Artificial Intelligences as Player Characters (Robots) and giant robot fighting suits (Mechs).

Robot PCs have advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, their brains can be switched from one chassis to another as the needs of the mission dictate, and they have "phylacteries" which allow them to recover from backup if destroyed. On the minus side, their skills, saves and to-hit bonuses are not quite as good as those of a human being, they need suitable parts to "heal" damage, and they can’t be healed by biopsionics. These are deliberate design decisions for game balance.

The chapter opens with an explanation of how AI came to be in the setting, why the Terran Mandate found it necessary to apply "braking" to AIs, how it came to deploy AIs in robot bodies, and what it was like to be an AI before, during and after the Scream. I can see several adventure possibilities here, for example around the tantalising snippets of the Imago Dei (an AI warrior religion), Drako (the original unbraked AI), and the throwaway line about Mandate survivors using bleeding edge pretech anagathics. I could see a campaign where the whole party are surviving AIs, either simply trying to survive or driven to complete some great purpose – resurrecting the Mandate, perhaps.

Next, the chapter explains how to create an AI PC. Unlike human characters, whose attributes are determined by random die rolls and the choice of character class, the AI has an amount of Tolerance points which it spends to buy Int, Wis, Cha, skills, saves and so on. The same points are also used to buy an armature or body, so don’t spend them all at this stage. There are 10 pre-statted armatures available, which require from 0-5 points to use; the AI starts with one armature and can swap itself into any other which requires the same number of points or fewer.

As they level up through experience, AIs improve their skills and hit points in much the same way as biological PCs. AIs are immune to biopsionics, most diseases and poisons, and require no sleep, food or air. However, they are still vulnerable to radiation.

The Robots section closes with the equivalent of NPCs and monsters; four sample NPC robots, operated by expert systems and lacking the self-awareness and initiative of PC AIs; and rules for creating more based on the AI armatures and skill packages.

The Mech section now starts. Again, this opens with setting information – how and why mechs came to be created, why they have a humanoid shape embellished by fins and spikes, and their tactical use by the Mandate.

This is followed by explanations of how mechs function in the game – as usual for an SF game, they are a cross between personal armour and vehicles, and beef up PCs sufficiently for them to survive the frightful weapons of the far future battlefield. Of particular note is the expense of maintaining and repairing mechs, which means they are likely to reserved for emergency use only.

There are three hull classes of mech; suit (3 metres tall, about the size of a 2300AD combat walker or a W40K dreadnought), light mech (6-8 metres tall), and heavy mech (10-13 metres tall). Each is available in assault, specialist or psimech versions, for differing battlefield roles. Like starships in the free edition, each mech hull has an amount of free space, power and hardpoints, and can be outfitted with various systems whose total requirements are those or less.

The section concludes with a sample mech for each of the nine hull class/purpose combinations. By the time I finished this chapter I was already plotting out assorted characters and mechs in my mind; I may post them on the blog once finished.

Societies (19 pages)

This chapter is aimed at giving an extra layer of depth to planetary societies, while retaining a clear focus on adventure possibilities and clarity of explanation to players. The theory here is that however much fun it is to develop a society in depth, if the players can’t remember it clearly and can’t see why they should interact with it, it’s not much use for gaming.

Building on the world creation sequence earlier in the rules, the GM uses random tables (whether by rolling dice or picking interesting results) to generate the world’s original reason for colonisation; initial culture, government, traits and conflict; and post-scream government, and conflicts. The GM then personalises the adventure hooks this creates by aligning them with NPCs and Factions in his game. The process also helps the GM work out who is going to be upset with the PCs and why, depending on the motivations of the two groups.

To pick out some highlights from the random tables:

  • Each government type is described in terms of its politics and legal system at an overview level.
  • Each conflict type has a number of subtypes, each with capsule descriptions of the conflict, the constraints which prevent it escalating (and thus resolving itself), and "changes" – implications of the conflict such as who can marry whom, or not.

Finally, there is a one-page example of applying the whole process to a world.

One thing I especially like about this chapter is the government evolution tables, which show how the initial government evolved into the current setup. In a sense, these generate the world’s history for you, by showing the key steps – founding, and evolution in response to conflicts.

WHAT’S CHANGED?

A new cover, replacing the free edition’s starfield with an image of three adventurers, one of each of the core classes, fighting some sort of vile monstrosity hand-to-hand.

Chapter numbers have been updated to match the new topics.

The Designer Notes chapter has been updated to explain the thinking behind the Robots, Mechs and Societies additions. These also explain how to use the AI point-buy character system for normal characters, which I welcome partly because I like to have the choice, and partly because I personally prefer to start with a character concept and design the character around it, rather than starting with the die rolls and using them to generate the concept.

Default attributes for the Quick NPCs in the Game Master Resources section have been corrected – those in the free edition were inconsistent with the bonuses given.

WHAT’S GONE?

Nothing, as far as I could see.

CONCLUSIONS

Regular readers will know SWN is one of my favourite RPGs, and that I was pleasantly surprised to find this level of quality available as the free edition.

The Core Edition broadens the range of subgenres that can be accommodated, to include synthetic humanoids and combat mechs – BattleTech or manga, anyone? They are however optional, since they  may or may not fit your conception of the future, and AIs are deliberately kept at roughly human levels of competence – one can debate whether this is realistic or not, but it is explained within the context of the game, and it prevents them being unbalanced compared to ordinary characters. The societies rules also broaden out world generation by providing a way to dice up what conflict makes the world’s Friends and Enemies want to engage with the NPCs.

I intend to merge the robot and society rules into the fledgling Heart of the Scorpion campaign immediately, and possibly the mecha rules later.

Review: Unbound Adventures

Unbound Adventures is no. 11 in the series of One on One Adventures from Expeditious Retreat Press, . Its objective is to provide rules for play without a GM at all levels; it’s aimed at getting into the dungeon sharpish, killing things and taking their stuff. If you’re looking for a detailed backstory, lovingly-crafted NPCs and a tortuous plot, you’re in the wrong place.

As regular readers will know, I’m a sucker for solitaire dungeons and random dungeon mappers, so I couldn’t resist.

One thing that wasn’t clear to me until after I’d downloaded it was that it assumes you have access to the D&D v3.5 Players’ Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide. I do, so that is not an issue for me, but if you don’t and it would be an issue for you, be aware.

HOW IT WORKS

Player Characters begin together in a randomly-generated settlement. Each day they stay there, they have a chance of a random encounter. When they choose, they set out to a dungeon and explore it to achieve one of half-a-dozen different goals, after which they can return to the same settlement or travel to a new one.

If they successfully complete a series of expeditions (one of each type) while based in the same settlement, the inhabitants hold a feast in their honour and grant them a title such as the Defenders of Wyvelrod*. These expeditions can be in the same dungeon, or different ones.

Travelling to and from the dungeon might involve wilderness encounters. The dungeon layout is generated from a set of random tables, using the D&D v3.5 for monsters, traps, and treasure – except for single-character parties, which need lower-level challenges than the Rules As Written provide; for these, Unbound Adventures offers suitable monster and trap tables.

IF YOU DON’T HAVE D&D v3.5

You will need some means of randomly generating:

  • Towns and town encounters.
  • Monster encounters, both in dungeons and the wilderness.
  • Traps.
  • Treasure hoards and magic items.

CONCLUSION

Basically, this is a means of generating a random dungeon map, reminiscent to me of Advanced Heroquest in scope and approach. It’s serviceable for that purpose, but a little expensive considering how much else you need to provide, and the price point of competing products.

If you’re considering this, I’d recommend you look at The Other Game Company’s Dungeon Bash, which does a lot more of the heavy lifting for you.

 

* Wyvelrod is an actual village near which I used to work at one time. I really have to use that name at some point.

Mandate Archives: Bruxelles-Class Battlecruiser

Here’s another free 7-page web supplement for Stars Without Number: The Bruxelles-class battlecruiser. This one is mostly fluff (background and setting detail) rather than crunch (rules and statistics). What has it got in its pocketses?

  • An Iron Ghost of a Dead Age: The history and purpose of the class before, during and after the Scream which caused the collapse of the Terran Mandate. The Bruxelles class was intended for frontier patrols and occasional punitive strikes beyond the Mandate’s borders.
  • Operational Parameters: Size, crew and passenger numbers, life support, endurance, and so forth. Weaponry is optimised for assaults on orbital stations and asteroid bases.
  • The Culture of the Ship. The effect of extended isolation on the crews, and how it coloured their interactions with the colonists they were intended to protect (and tax).
  • Ship’s Complement. Minimum and recommended crew sizes for each department aboard ship, with notes on the ranks of those involved.
  • Using the Ship. What can the GM do with a pretech battlecruiser? This section lists who might want one, what for, and the constraints they operate under.
  • The Ship’s Interior. It would be difficult to include any sensible deckplans for a 300 metre vessel in a 7-page document, especially one whose external hull shape varies according to the date and place of manufacture, and most especially one whose internal layout is not critical to the typical adventure. Instead, this page focusses on what it looks like and feels like to be aboard a Bruxelles. There’s also a small glossary of naval terminology.
  • Ship Statistics and Weaponry. One page of rules crunch; the SWN / Skyward Steel statistics for the Bruxelles and its weaponry, with a table for randomly determining what has broken in the centuries since the ship was last used in anger. The weapons are new, powerful grav-shear devices not noted in either SWN or Skyward Steel.
  • Ship Plot Seeds. Six adventure seeds which could see the PCs cross paths with a Bruxelles.

I note from the advertisement at the end of page 7 that a print version of SWN with extra content is on its way via Mongoose Publishing. Can’t wait!

Conclusion

Another tightly-written piece of goodness from Sine Nomine Publications. I could see this as the equivalent of Classic Traveller‘s Kinunir class battlecruisers, or in a pre-Scream campaign much along the lines of the original Star Trek.

In most campaigns, though, this will be a McGuffin – something that the PCs can sell for an immense price, or be highly paid to recover, if only they can survive the attentions of every pirate, planetary government and dictator in the sector…

Hero Lab vs MetaCreator

I’ve been using MetaCreator for a few years now, but wondered if it was worth switching to Hero Lab. So, I downloaded the Hero Lab free demo. Here’s what I found…

Topic MetaCreator Hero Lab
Look and feel Utilitarian. A bit snazzier.
Output formats One-page character sheet in landscape, portrait or portrait with combat crib sheet; two characters per sheet; RTF statblock; 3×5 index card; tabular output for large numbers of characters; Nice-looking one-page character sheet or statblock.
Savage Worlds Support Explorers’ Edition; Evernight; Necessary Evil; Tour of Darkness; 50 Fathoms Explorers’ Edition (De Luxe Edition in progress)
Other systems supported Ars Magica, d20 SRD, Call of Cthulhu, CORPS, Fudge D&D 4E; Pathfinder; World of Darkness; Call of Cthulhu; Mutants & Masterminds; d20 SRD; Shadowrun; GRC Modern Heroes
Other features Die roller; online game session client (separate fee); random name generator Die roller; tactical console (GM combat aid)
Niggles Windows 7 keeps asking for permission to launch It flags Healing as an error when selected for Arcane Background (Magic); experience can’t be entered directly but only as part of a diary entry.
Vendor support Excellent; fast, friendly response to queries. Unrated – haven’t tried it out.
Price with one game system $29.95 $29.99

Hero Lab has a very similar look and feel to Lone Wolf’s other products, such as Army Builder. I could probably fix the niggles if I could be bothered, but my programming days are long behind me now.

Conclusion

Hero Lab looks prettier, but MetaCreator has better functionality for my main game, namely Savage Worlds. In particular, there are many more options for printing without having to customise the software, and I use most of them. Also, Lone Wolf’s house style of small, pale blue writing on a dark blue background is getting harder for me to read as my eyes age – MetaCreator’s black on white is easier on the eyes.

So I’ll stick with MetaCreator for now, but if Pathfinder passes the “tryout” phase and gets added to the regular stable, I may get both programmes.