Dark Nebula Map

I’m going through a “life laundry” at the moment, editing possessions and pastimes down to a more sustainable level. Amongst other things, that means going through my old gaming files and culling them – some of that stuff hasn’t been used in 30 years, and that probably means it never will be again, so it may as well go.

(I have visions of my descendents in a few decades’ time, after my demise, going through all my beloved and carefully acquired possessions, saying: “What is this crap?” – and then throwing it away. But I digress.)

This one was too pretty to die; it’s the map from my playtest campaign for GURPS Traveller Alien Races 2 and 3.

darknebula3

This is the map for GDW’s old boardgame Dark Nebula, rescaled to one parsec per hex, and rotated to align it with other Traveller maps; this was issued to players with the following blurb as a one-page handout:

PLAYER HANDOUT

The Aslan Hierate (imagine Klingons in lion suits) and the Solomani Confederation (Stalinist Nazi humans) are two interstellar empires glaring at each other across a buffer zone of independent planets. Each wants to expand into the other’s territory, but neither has a decisive advantage, so they wage a cold war in deep space and dark alleys.

Player characters are based in the Solomani Quadrant, a pocket empire which is being absorbed by the Confederation to act as a jumping-off point for their eventual invasion of the Hierate. Key figures in the Quadrant live in fear of Solomani Security (the Gestapo) who monitor them constantly to ensure their commitment to the Manifest Destiny of the Solomani Race (“Same thing we do every night – try to take over the world”).

Between the two empires lie the Dark Nebula (half Bermuda Triangle, half North West Passage); the Union of Fastnesses, a group of mixed human/Aslan planets trying to stay neutral; and various petty planetary states (those places that only appear in one episode of Star Trek – made of orange polystyrene and inhabited by humanoids with weird noses and funny hats).

Local technology is like Star Wars without the blasters and lightsabres. Personal weapons are conventional guns, although ‘conventional’ now means ‘packed with electronics and firing caseless shaped charge rounds off a floating breech’.

Hyperspace jumps are only possible along marked routes. The map is a two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional space, so systems next to each other may be too far apart vertically for a jump to be possible.

THE CAMPAIGN

This lasted for about four real-time years, during which the PCs followed individual plotlines in small groups, plotlines which bumped into each other and eventually twisted together into an overall story arc. They discovered the secret origin of the Aslan jump drive, the secrets left by the long-vanished Terran Confederation in the Nebula itself, insane artificial intelligences, a nasty villainess with multiple cloned bodies and a distributed consciousness, the real reason for the pastoral nature of the Droyne and a Droyne conspiracy to take over the Galaxy. They stole the jump co-ordinates from the Droyne, and tried to sell them to the highest bidder. They unwittingly carried a Solomani agent provocateur to Kuzu and helped him nuke the starport without realising they had.

It was insanely complicated, hugely enjoyable, and burned out a year before the five-year story arc was to have come to an end, meaning that just like Babylon 5, a lot of the story had to be rushed through in season 4 to get us to a closing point that tied up the most important loose ends. Rest in peace, characters.

Savage Worlds Encounter Balancing by CV

Since MetaCreator calculates the Showdown points value ("CV") for each figure for me, I wondered what things would look like if I tried balancing encounters by points value. So, just for fun:

  • The party that I GM for most often (Gutz the Rogue, Nessime the Paladin, and The Warforged) has a current total CV of 238. Their commonest opponents are orcs or human soldiers.
  • A soldier with leather and shortsword has a CV of 25, and an experienced soldier with chain and longsword has CV 37. A reasonable match if the town guard are after them is a squad of 8 soldiers with an experienced soldier in command.
  • Ogres have CV 62, Orcs 42, and Orc Chieftains 118. So, barging into the orc chieftain’s lair while he communes with his pet ogre and five orc bodyguards is a fair fight.
  • At the top of the food chain in terms of encounters is a liche (CV 192) with 4d10 zombie/skeleton guards (32-33 each); total CV of 320-984, average CV 517.

Do not boogie with the liche. He will mess you up.

Review: Bill Coffin’s Septimus

Bill Coffin’s Septimus is an Open D6 campaign setting from West End Games. 54 MB PDF, 366 pages. (Bill Coffin is probably best-known for his work at Palladium prior to this opus.)

SETTING (95 pages)

Most SF RPGs are set some time after the collapse of the last great stellar empire, as fledging worlds re-emerge into space. Septimus is set during the collapse itself, as the mighty Seventh Empire implodes under its own weight, and the bold and cunning join the mass exodus to Septimus. The breakdown of hyperspace travel is cutting off many worlds from the Empire, abandoning them to an uncertain fate.

Septimus itself is a Dyson Sphere constructed by a vanished alien race; a remote, high-tech sanctuary for those fleeing the dissolution of the Empire. The PCs are tough and resourceful enough to have braved numerous dangers on their way to Septimus, and lucky enough to survive the final jump into the interior of the sphere itself.

Inside Septimus is a habitable environment covering the interior of a shell one AU in radius, equivalent in surface area to millions of Earthlike worlds.

Freeman Dyson didn’t actually intend the spheres which bear his name to be solid shells, but that’s how fiction and games have interpreted them ever since, so let’s roll with it. The game mentions a number of the physics problems a solid shell causes, but handwaves them away with the statement "a vanished alien race did it", which is the SF equivalent of the more common "a wizard did it".

This chapter gives the history of the Seventh Empire and the Sindavar Extent, a sect which discovered Septimus; the hardships the PCs must have overcome to reach it; its many paradoxes. The Extent now controls Septimus, but their exposure to alien technology has transformed them into something unsettling. The chapter includes maps of the Extent’s capital city of Arcopolis, which is a giant arcology full of citizens leading lives of pampered indolence, while around its edge are post-apocalyptic warrior tribes, albeit ones with their own, smaller, cities. The maps essentially zoom out from the core of the city, gradually revealing more and more of the surrounding area; I would have found the chapter easier to understand if it had been structured differently, with a top-level overview first. As it is, I will need to read it several times to grasp it properly; I’m still trying to figure out who Steel Helix are, and why they attacked Arcopolis. Scales on the maps would have helped, too.

There are labyrinths in the wastelands outside Arcopolis, the remains of machine-built nanofactories, in effect laced with traps and treasure if you fancy a spot of SF dungeon-crawling.

There are five major factions as well as the Extent fighting over who gets to control Septimus, and each gets a capsule description. These factions inhabit a number of planets and moons which orbit the central star of the system, but inside the Dyson Sphere itself. Conflict between the factions, and the general lawlessness inside the Sphere caused by its huge size, has attracted mercenaries and pirates of all descriptions. The worlds inside the sphere are described too, along with their satellites.

The number seven crops up repeatedly; the Seventh Empire, its seven ages, its seven astrological regions, the seven cities, the seven leaders of the Extent’s Cadre, and so on.

It seems the PCs are  intended to start out in Arcopolis, and work their way outwards.

D6 SYSTEM (29 pages)

This will be familiar to anyone who played WEG’s Star Wars. Characters have attributes and skills rated in terms of die codes – one might have Strength 3D, and Lift 3D+2, for example. "D" is shorthand for a normal, six-sided die, which is all you need to play.

When you try to do something, you roll the relevant dice and try to equal or exceed the target number of your chosen task. One of the dice you roll is always a wild die, which explodes; if you roll a 6, you keep the 6 and roll again. If you roll a 1 on the wild die, though, some sort of critical failure occurs and the GM complicates your character’s life.

Characters also have one or more Fate Points. A PC may spend a Fate Point to double all his attributes, skills etc. for one round. If this is done with heroic motivations, the PC gets that point back at the end of the session; if it is done with evil intent, he loses the point and gains one point of Corruption; if it’s done with a neutral intent, he loses the point. If he is heroic at a dramatically appropriate moment, he gets the point back, plus a bonus point.

Additionally, you acquire corruption each time you modify your body or brain with alien technology, or each time you use cloning, personality upload etc. to cheat death. As your Corruption score grows, your modifications start to malfunction, then you start getting blackouts during which you do nasty things but have no memory of them afterwards. Gain enough Corruption, and your PC becomes an evil NPC controlled by the GM. Corruption points cannot ever be removed. It’s a bit like Insanity in Call of Cthulhu.

Characters also have Character Points, which can be used either to improve abilities between sessions, or to gain a temporary boost within a session; typically they gain 6-8 per session.

A character who is injured attempts to resist with a Strength roll; if the damage inflicted exceeds his Strength roll, he is injured – the more he missed by, the greater the injury.

CHARACTERS (13 pages)

Characters are based on templates, which allocate dice to attributes and skills – one might have Strength 3D, and Lift 3D+2, for example. "D" is shorthand for a normal, six-sided die, which is all you need to play. Alternatively, you can build a character from scratch using the point-buy rules here – I’ve always found it easier to modify a template for my own characters, and my players prefer to take a template and run with it. There are more templates in the book than PCs in the typical party, and of course they can be used for NPCs as well.

Alternatively, you can build a character from scratch using the point-buy rules here – I’ve always found it easier to modify a template for my own characters, and my players prefer to take a template and run with it. There are more templates in the book than PCs in the typical party, and of course they can be used for NPCs as well.

Point-buy follows the usual sequence; you spent points to buy skills and attributes; you can also buy Boons (Edges, Advantages, Feats, call them what you will), or get more points by taking Banes (Hindrances, Disadvantages).

One unusual attribute is Resources, which replaces keeping track of money in the game – if you want to buy something, it has a target number, and you make a Resources roll to see if you can get it.

There is also a Corruption Buffer, which represents how much cybernetic or genetic modification your character can take before he starts to become corrupted by it. You can hold this in reserve for later use, or take mods initially.

To support roleplaying the character, the player then chooses two demeanours from a list of 32 – these are tags like Aggressive or Leisurely, with no real mechanical influence on the game – and one motivation such as Power, Revenge, or Professionalism, which describes your character’s core reason for being and adventuring. Again, this is about roleplaying, there are no mechanical advantages or disadvantages.

I should mention that characters are human, although possibly modded being recognition with nanotech or gengineering; there are no extant alien races in the setting, just extinct ones.

SKILLS (72 pages)

I must admit, a 72-page skills section is a red flag for me. It suggests that characters, and therefore the game, are going to be more complex than I like. (Remember, what I usually play – Savage Worlds, THW, OD&D – is characterised by simple rules.)

There are dozens of skills listed, and each one occupies the better part of a page, thanks to details on typical target numbers for tasks, and modifiers for circumstances such as availability or otherwise of suitable tools.

BOONS AND BANES (43 pages)

We’re still in character creation territory here, with a list of Boons including the usual ones like Alertness, Jack of All Trades or Contacts, and Banes such as Addiction, Greed, or a Dependent. A number of them have non-standard names – what most games call Luck, for example, Septimus calls Instant Karma – but that’s just cosmetic. Most of them are available in different levels, with different points costs or bonuses attached.

Boons can also be used to gain non-standard pieces of equipment such as a starship, a relic which aids psychic powers, a robot sidekick, or a small private base.

Ones which particularly intrigued me:

  • Allies are rated like chess pieces depending on how expensive they are; Pawns are non-combatant extras, Bishops are adventurers like yourself, Knights are adventurers better than yourself, and Rooks are NPCs with others under their command. It’s unclear whether the ally improves as your character does. There are also Companions and Guardian Angels, who are different versions of Allies, and that’s a common theme in both Skills and this section; things I would expect to be a single skill, boon or bane are split into several related items.
  • Quick Thinking guarantees the player a minimum time to discuss and plan with other players, however much time pressure the characters are under. I don’t feel the need for this mechanism – my handwave is to assume that the PCs spend much of their leisure time making contingency plans. ("OK, pop quiz: We’re all captured and suspended upside down in a mine shaft, what do we do?")
  • True Love grants bonuses both to the character and his or her beloved so long as they are together.
  • Jinxed is a kind of anti-luck; the GM gains the right to overrule successful dice rolls the character makes.
  • Pacifism has an unusual penalty; if you act violently, the next few character points you earn are lost, as you are too busy beating yourself up over it to learn anything.
  • A Svengali is a mentor who has given in to the Dark Side, and has painful plans for you.

NANOTECH (23 pages)

Nanomods are effectively more boons, which you buy with corruption points rather than character points. This is why you might want to buy a corruption buffer as one of your boons. In general terms, they are built-in equipment. Ones that stood out for me:

  • Action Tether allows you to string together a sequence of actions (typically melee attacks) and execute them as one. You make a single die roll; if it succeeds, all the actions in the tether succeed; if it fails, they all fail, but you are still committed to them.
  • Assimilator gathers raw materials from the environment and automatically repairs your wounds, or potentially your death.

Towards the end of this chapter I started mentally creating characters from Iain Banks’ Culture novels using the Boons and Nanotech options. It was a pretty good match.

GENOTECH (16 pages)

Like Nanotech, but with different modifications. I especially liked extra body part. I could have all kinds of fun with that. Especially since it doesn’t have to be a human body part.

This section includes a number of things like Intangibility, Invisibility and Teleportation that seemed more like psionic powers to me than genetic engineering.

METAPHYSICS (14 pages)

This is the psionics chapter – what used to be called the Force in the D6 system, back when it was Star Wars. The psionic skills are limited in number:

  • Channel focusses energy to increase or decrease damage.
  • Sense detects things and influences others ("These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.") It essentially modifies skill levels used for perception or interpersonal tasks.
  • Transform moves things around, or changes their innate characteristics. ("I find your lack of faith disturbing.")

There’s no list of psychic powers as such, hence the short length of the chapter; you can do whatever you want, but the target number for the effect you’re after is worked out from a detailed description of what you want to do, and tables of difficulty numbers for each component of that.

Psychic characters should thus figure out a few standard powers they will use regularly, and note down the difficulties. At the end of the section is a list of a dozen or so example powers, covering most of the basics – healing people, hurting them, and reading their minds.

HARDWARE (42 pages)

This is the gear you can buy in the Extent’s territory. I looked forward to this more than I usually do to an equipment chapter, because of the entertaining ideas earlier on. However, there isn’t much unusual; the basic toolkits, spacesuits, slugthrowers, energy weapons, powered armour, robots and vehicles that you’d expect in an SF game.

The usual gear lists are followed by the Megascale Construction section, which is not so much stuff for PCs to buy as technology which is part of the game environment itself, intended to provide the Not-Kansas factor in the GM’s hands; an example is the farcasters, large teleport platforms which have replaced vehicles except for sporting and military purposes.

I was disappointed in this section. It looks like hardware takes a back seat to nanomods and genomods in the game.

TEMPLATES (49 pages)

Here are two dozen templates, suitable as NPCs or beginning characters. Regular readers will know how much I like to see this in a book, and D6 as a system had it from the beginning.

Eight of the templates are natives of the Sindavar Extent, eight are from the outland resistance to that polity, and eight are newcomers recently arrived from outside the sphere. They include the usual SF tropes – free trader, mercenary, scout, noble and so on – as well as a few non-standard ones: The Avatar, an AI consciousness lurking in the sphere’s datanet; the Synthient, android hyper-specialist; the Hardcase, a personality in a robot body; the Hyperion, a living computer along the lines of Frank Herbert’s Mentats.

Each template has a description of the type of person it represents, ideas for how it might be connected to the others in the party, a tagline or common saying, and a fully-statted character sheet.

The book closes with an index and the Open Gaming Licence. No advice on running a campaign, no sample adventure, no bestiary.

CONCLUSIONS

It’s tempting to compare this to WEG’s Star Wars game, Larry Niven’s Ringworld (and the Chaosium RPG set on it), and also to Bob Shaw’s novel Orbitsville, which has a similar premise to Septimus.

The rules are good, but not good enough to wean me off my favourites. The setting is generally well-written, although there are some parts which are disjointed, or apparently missing (that could just be me missing them, mind); however, it’s a high-tech dystopia inside a post-apocalyptic dystopia inside a collapsing-galactic-empire dystopia, and that just doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid.

Rating: 2 out of 5; it gets docked a point for missing a number of things I would expect to see in a work like this. I don’t see myself using any of it for current or future campaigns.

Review: Deal-a-Dungeon

The Deal-a-Dungeon starter set from Talisman Studios looked like a useful addition to my GM armoury, being aimed at creating a dungeon on the fly by dealing cards from a special deck.

As ever, I got the PDF download version, which weighs in at a chunky 40 MB for 37 full-colour pages.

Inside, I found two pages of instructions, 21 pages of dungeon tiles, and 12 pages of cards. The idea is to assemble the cards, shuffle, and draw to determine the next section of your dungeon. Once you know that, you lay the corresponding tiles on the table and off you go.

The dungeon tiles break down into four large areas, 16 x 16 squares (the D&D standard of 5′ to the square and 25/28mm figures is in force), and 32 small areas, 4 x 4 squares. These are a mixture of small rooms and corridors, mostly one square wide but occasionally two. There’s also a sheet of doors, stairs and other small miscellaneous tiles.

The large areas have subsections, either areas with particular terrain on them, or smaller rooms as part of a complex. You need to print out four sheets for each one, and assemble.

You can buy additional packs, each with a new large area and its associated card, to build up your deck. It would also be easy enough to add cards for treasure or encounters to the deck, giving you a complete dungeon generator.

All good enough at what it does, although the artwork is quite dark, in black and dark greens, and would be hard to make out in dim light. Certainly my usual practice of snapping a picture of the setup on my mobile phone when we call the session for the night wouldn’t produce a clear enough image.

However, it’s not for me. I prefer a set of room and corridor tiles which are all the same size, and use as much of the paper as possible. The smaller tiles typically used for corridors and stairs are easily disturbed, and harder to tessellate.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Review: Mars

This is Adamant Entertainment’s take on the planetary romance genre of pulp adventure, giving the Savage Worlds treatment to Mars as envisioned by writers such as H G Wells and Edgar Rice Burrows, although it isn’t a direct implementation of any of them. 181 page PDF or hard copy.

INTRODUCTION (5 pages)

As it says, this is an introduction to Mars, both through a short story and a half-page in the authorial voice. This isn’t Mars as we now know it to be, but Mars as the pulp fiction and cinema serials of the late 19th and early 20th centuries imagined it.

Frankly, Mars was a better place then. But I digress.

MARS (27 pages)

This is the background chapter, and provides the history and geography of this imaginary Mars. As usual for the genre, this is a once lush planet, whose civilisation has been largely destroyed by centuries of drought, and is thus a mixture of weird science (radium rifles) and ancient or mediaeval technology (swords). The dying effort of the former civilisation was to construct a network of canals, bringing what little water remains to the surviving cities.

It’s worth noting at the outset that this section contains information I wouldn’t expect the PCs to know at the outset, so it should be considered GM-only territory.

Daily life is mentioned briefly, but only those details which can inject verisimilitude into the GM’s descriptions – the scarcity of meat, the general climate, decaying technology maintained by rote, holidays, and so on.

Races include the city-dwelling Red Men, the barbarian Green Men of the wilderness between cities, the fierce and disciplined White Apes, and the Grey Men used to frighten naughty children. Despite laying eggs, the Red Men are essentially humans, and are even now the dominant civilisation; their surviving nations are described in moderate detail, with a couple of pages each; by contrast, the Ape Empire has but a single page, that of the Grey Men or the Green even less.

We also learn about the ruined cities of the Red Men’s ancestors, and the treasure that may be found therein by the stout of heart; the Red King of the Green Men, an exile who is forging a nomad empire in the wastes; the damp caverns below the surface; the aberrant Whispering Lord, a Grey Man exile; the dead sea floors; the canals; the quick-blooming thornpatches and their miniature ecosystems; oases; the long-abandoned polar stations and what lies within.

The book includes a map, and the PDF edition of the game comes with a full-colour version in a separate file; but as the authors note, writers of planetary romances weren’t much bothered about detailed maps, and “in the North Polar Wastes, many days from the citadel” is as good a set of directions as players should expect to get.

Despite the book’s insistence that it is not based on any one writer’s work, this chapter reeks of John Carter to me. (That’s not a complaint, incidentally.)

I would have preferred it to introduce the races earlier, and in a more structured manner; the PC and NPC races are in the next chapter, Characters. A few quick paragaphs early on would have helped me to grasp them better.

CHARACTERS (36 pages)

As in Adamant’s Thrilling Tales, players are advised to create stereotypical characters in broad strokes; if it takes you more than one pithy, pulpish sentence to convey the essence of your character, you’re doing it wrong.

The player is offered capsule descriptions of the key archetypes of the genre; the Adventurer, the Companion (more likely an NPC sidekick than a PC, methinks), the Defender, the Explorer, the Outcast, the Trickster. Within this framework, character creation follows normal Savage Worlds rules; buy your attributes, skills and edges with points, take hindrances to get extra points.
The book suggests that beginning characters start with at least two advances from Novice (i.e., 10 experience points), and that experienced players should start at Seasoned rank or better. I wouldn’t go down that route myself, but there you go.

The authors expect troupes of PCs to be a mixture of earthmen and Red Men, with perhaps a Green Man or White Ape attached – those are the PC races.
Earthmen are those unexpectedly deposited on Mars as was John Carter, at some point between 1850 and 1950, depending on when the GM thinks the campaign should happen; Red Men are, as mentioned before, red-skinned, egg-laying, but otherwise human, and the main civilised race of Mars; Green Men are hard-skinned, tusked and clawed nomads; White Apes are, well, what it says on the tin; picture the gorillas from Planet of the Apes and you’re about there.

Red Men start with a free Edge (like standard humans), one skill of their choice at d6, and Survival d6. Note that coupled with the advice to start with 10 experience, even a Novice Red Man is effectively Seasoned. (I do have to wonder why a species that lays eggs would develop such voluptuous figures as those depicted in the illustrations, but this is science fantasy here.)

Green Men initially have +3 Size, d6 Strength, d6 Vigour, Large, Bloodthirsty, natural claws and tusks, and Survival d6, and that’s before they start building their characters; admittedly raising Smarts is hard for them. No wonder the humans are advised to start with a few extra experience. Green Men are also egg-layers.

White Apes begin with Size +2; Strength, Vigour and Agility all at d6; thick fur coats; prehensile feet; Bloodthirsty; Clumsy; and Survival d6. Raising Spirit is hard for them.

Grey Martians (picture H G Wells’ Martians) and synthe-men (relic constructs from the lost civilisation) are also described here, but it’s made clear that in the typical game they will be NPCs.

Earthmen are treated last. They are normal Savage Worlds characters, but in line with the genre, they may use points from character creation to buy unusual powers – maybe they are stronger due to the weak gravity, maybe their appearance strikes an obedient chord in the minds of Martian races, or some other power – a wide list of suggestions is provided. All Earthmen have the Outsider hindrance, and one free edge.

Next, the book has rules for creating new races, much like those in SW Deluxe Edition. This and the inclusion of NPC races suggest to me that this chapter should be for GM only as well.
A discussion of skills follows, including a tucked-away note that every PC gets Guts d4 free; then of hindrances and edges. In each case, this explains minor tweaks to fit them to the genre, which ones are not permitted, and in the case of edges, a range of new ones. Notably, Arcane Background is very uncommon amongst PCs, and is expected to be used mostly for villainous NPCs.

GEAR (13 pages)

As usual for an RPG, this focuses mostly on the armour and weapons of the Red Planet. Gunpowder is notable by its complete absence, the Martians never having invented it. We do have a range of radium-powered firearms and exotic armour and weapons suited to a metal-poor culture.

There are notes on a few vehicle types, mostly canal barges or desert transport.

As you know by now, I tend to glaze over at the equipment chapters of setting books, preferring to stick to the items in the core rules. I have no idea how unusual that is, but that’s how I roll.

SETTING RULES (14 pages)

These are largely the same as those in Adamant’s Thrilling Tales:

Heroes or major villains on Mars basically don’t die, and the incapacitation rules are modified to reflect that.

PCs can gain bennies through acting with style and panache, and use them to gain minor narrative control in scenes.

Two new levels of NPC; henchmen, who are better than extras but not as good as wild cards, and mooks, who make extras look good.

However, the book also adds statistics for airships. Nobody really understands how they work, so no effort is wasted on explaining that; but they are likely to engage in combat, so there are modified rules for fighting between airships and boarding actions.

GAMEMASTERING (16 pages)

This chapter opens with a brief history of the planetary romance genre, from 1905 to the present, then moves on to the themes that define it; ruined cities, a focus on ideals and archetypes rather than realism, weird science, grand schemes and exotic locales.

It then explains how to construct the type of adventure suited to the genre, emphasising jump-cuts between scenes of excitement, nefarious villainy, and characters who are morally black or white, not grey.

As is common in SW settings, we now find a random adventure generator, using dice and tables to determine who the villain is, what he wants, how the PCs are drawn in (the “hook”), the exotic location where it happens, the villain’s henchmen, and plot twists. A detailed example is given to show how these work together.

BEASTS OF MARS (16 pages)

Mars isn’t a game where one kicks in the door, kills the monster and loots its treasure; I have no problem with that approach, but it doesn’t fit here. The Beasts of Mars are villains’ pets, guardians of lost treasures, or simply part of the environment, there to remind players why the Red Men live behind city walls. This bestiary offers two things; first, a selection of apex predator types – there are a bunch of small furry creatures around, but you don’t eat them and they don’t eat you, so they don’t need statblocks; and second, guidelines for converting creatures from other SW bestiaries to Martian ones, essentially trappings writ large, with an example conversion.

Personally, I don’t feel the need for rules on how to turn a lion into a six-legged compound-eyed nasty, but they do no harm, and may even provide me with some inspiration.

SLAVERS OF MARS (32 pages)

Here is a five-scenario Plot Point campaign, in which the heroes are hired to extract a Martian princess from the wastelands by airship. Naturally, things are never quite that simple, and go downhill rapidly. ‘Nuff said.

There’s also a selection of a dozen or so adventure seeds – Savage Tales, as they would usually be called for this game system.

ENCOUNTERS (9 pages)

There’s a page of encounter tables for various environments, intended as spurs to the imagination rather than detailed encounters; the GM is expected to wing it, which suits me fine. There are also a variety of stock NPCs; citizens, assassins, city guardsmen, naval ratings and officers, thugs, nobles, soldiers, priests, typical Green and White Martians. Finally, a selection of eight fleshed-out wild card NPCs, to be introduced as patrons or villains.

And, of course, there is the obligatory character sheet.

CONCLUSIONS

The main competition for Mars would be the Savage Worlds version of Space: 1889, which covers a broadly similar campaign setting. I don’t have that (yet), and it’s been many years since I saw the GDW version, so I can’t do an effective comparison. My guess is that Mars takes fewer pains with plausibility.

The Good

I don’t often comment about the illustrations in a gaming product, but I did like the ones in Mars; for the most part, simple line drawings, but good at capturing the feel of the setting. The book is also peppered with short fiction in the pulp style, which also serve to convey the sense of being there.

The Bad

The organisation of the book is a little worse than I’ve come to expect in modern RPG products. Referring to races for some time before explaining what they are, snippets of character creation scattered throughout the Characters chapter, and so forth. Note in particular that the GM-only and player information is mixed together, so this is not a book where you can easily give sections to the players.

The odd reference to Action Points or advanced classes, both d20 concepts, manages to leak through the editing; that doesn’t confuse me because I know what they are, and that they are leftovers from the original d20 edition, but someone without that information might be confused.

The Verdict

It’s a bit rough around the edges, but I’d love to run this one. All I need is players. Maybe once Irongrave winds down.

Review: Evernight

Published by Pinnacle themselves in 2003, Evernight is one of the earliest Savage Worlds settings. 146 pages, written by Shane Lacy Hensley, creator of SW itself.

THE MINSTREL’S TALE

Two pages of historical background, presented as a tale of earlier heroes, told to the PCs by a minstrel. This is not immediately relevant, but towards the end of the story arc, players who were paying attention should go “Aha!”

PLAYERS’ SECTION (27 pages)

This is your standard setting background fare; a quick three page overview of the world of Tarth and the kingdom of Valusia, which your PCs call home, is followed by character creation – a one page refresher of the SW approach, then details of the races of Tarth (the usual suspects – dwarves, elves, half-elves, Halflings, half-orcs, humans).

There are notes on which Edges and Hindrances are not appropriate, and a few new Edges; the professional edges stand out as most interesting for me, allowing a PC to be a Red Knight (paladin) or Sun Priest (cleric). The gear is mostly what you’d expect for a fantasy setting, although Valusia has black powder firearms, which jars a little for me – I blame Warhammer for this intrusion of clockpunk into my nice clean high fantasy worlds, as regular readers will know. Still, there they are.

Arcane Backgrounds are limited to Magic and Miracles; these have been tweaked along D&D lines, so that priests always know Healing, and wizards never do. There are a handful of new spells, of which my favourite is Pawn of Mizridoor, which mechanically just summons a fighter to do the wizard’s bidding, but has nice trappings.

The chapter closes with nine ready-to-play Novice characters or archetypes. I always applaud their inclusion in a setting, and do so again here; many of my players don’t have the time or inclination to spend hours reading setting material and rules to figure out exactly what they want, and it’s easier just to hand them the archetypes and say “Pick one.”

EVERNIGHT PART II (8 pages)

Up to a certain point, namely the appearance of the Masters, Evernight is a standard fantasy campaign. Once they appear, things change, and this second players’ section is unveiled. It covers new edges and archetypes, a new economy triggered by the other changes, and a brief description of what the Masters’ appearance looked like and caused. (I’m leaving this deliberately vague to avoid spoilers.)

GAME MASTER’S SECTION (11 pages)

Everything up to this point could be read by the players, but from here on we’re in GM territory.

This is the secret history of Tarth, and begins with a question: The elves live in the forests, the dwarves underground – what have they been hiding from? The answer is The Scourge, and this chapter explains what it is, why it went away, and why it has come back.

It continues with the setting-specific rules; magic items, and lighting (most of the campaign takes place in darkness, hence its name).

THE DYING OF THE LIGHT (79 pages)

This is a campaign in 33 scenes, split between five acts, and accounts for well over half the book. The first phase, pre-Masters, is fairly straightforward – it’s in this part of the timeline that the free Red Swamp Adventure is set. Things change with the arrival of the Masters towards the end of Act 1, and from then on the campaign focus is on repelling the invaders from Valusia.

Should the group succeed and wish to continue in the same vein, they can go on to tackle invaders in other regions. Personally, I think the story is dramatically complete at the end of Act 5, and would close the campaign at that point – Savage Worlds seems built on the assumption that campaigns start, run to a natural end point, and then stop, as opposed to the more open-ended Old School approach.

BESTIARY (6 pages)

Here we find a couple of dozen monsters, most new, a few now present in the core rulebooks.

Beyond this are five pages of player handouts, and the obligatory character sheet.

CONCLUSIONS

Evernight was written before the Plot Point approach stabilised, and is more of a railroad trip than the standard SW campaign. It’s also less polished than later Pinnacle work, with minor errors such as chapters with one name in their headings and a different one in the table of contents, and less attractive page layouts – but you can’t blame them for improving their product range.

In a sense, Evernight is an homage to D&D; many of the monsters, classes (professional edges) and spell restrictions are reminiscent of the earlier game. Where it stands out is in fusing that ANSI standard fantasy setting with the tropes of alien invasion.

At the time, I would have rated this 4 out of 5, as it gives the GM the tools to run a standard high fantasy game, a Warhammerish clockpunk fantasy game, or the full-on grimdark alien invasion fantasy campaign. Pinnacle and others have raised the bar since 2003, though, and in today’s market I’d reduce that rating to a 3 – average.

Review: Cabals of Hydra Sector

Blimey, this Crawford bloke is writing stuff faster than I can review it.

This is the latest of the free web supplements for Stars Without Number; a 7-page document looking at cabals present in Hydra Sector, the example setting provided in the SWN rulebook.

We get background information on two of these, the Gansu Loyalty Association and the Daedalus Group, together with full statistics for them using the rules from the Darkness Visible espionage sourcebook. We also get capsule descriptions of a round dozen further cabals.

While the two main cabals are fine examples of how to craft agencies using the DV rules, they can also be dropped into a campaign pretty much as is. You’ll need DV to get full use from the statblocks, but the descriptions are clear enough to use them without this.

The GLA feels like a 1960s-style communist intelligence agency, and would be well-suited as a long-term opponent for more liberal regimes. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and having the power, GLA agents also have the corruption, meaning they can be introduced gradually as a source of hard-to-get items, with their longer-term goals being revealed piecemeal over the course of a campaign. To incorporate them into your own campaign, you need an isolationist state along the lines of contemporary North Korea to act as their sponsors. Personally, I think they work better as NPC opponents than as sponsors for the players.

By contrast, the Daedalus Group and its vaulting but flawed ambitions would serve well as an employer for PCs, since its severe casualties to date are forcing it to recruit relatively green agents. I’d recommend using it as the core of a conspiracy theory; as the campaign progresses and the PCs move closer to the inner membership, the Group’s motivations and actions move from admirable, to questionable, to a necessary evil, to downright insane. To use it in a different campaign, it needs a homeworld which is outnumbered and outgunned by an aggressive enemy.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Review: Old School Fantasy

This review covers the first three adventures in Reality Blurs’ Old School Fantasy series. They were up to nine last time I checked. As usual, I won’t give too much away about the scenarios.

A KEG FOR DRAGON

A 20-page module written by Sean Preston. The highlight for me was the adventure concept; goblins are attacking the village of Northpoint, and the nearby dragon isn’t helping as he is supposed to. The heroes are drawn into this problem and have to find out what’s going on, then fix the problem.

You get 8 pages of background, how to run the module, and statblocks for NPCs and encounters, followed by an adventure in 9 scenes. There are no maps, but you don’t really need them.

Rated 4 out of 5, mainly because I liked the story premise.

DARKNESS OVER KERYHK NHOR

A 24-page module by Sean Preston. 9 pages of background, GM advice and statblocks as before, then an adventure in 9 scenes. This one does have a map, of Keryhk Nhor.

The heroes learn that nearby Keryhk Nhor, an abandoned dwarven mine, has opened its doors for the first time in many years. A former inhabitant engages them to enter and clean out the current monster infestation so the dwarves can return. Even travelling to the mine is dangerous, with actual entry occurring quite late in the writeup.

Can you say “dungeon crawl”? I knew you could. As a dungeon, Keryhk Nhor is relatively small, with a dozen or so areas. A party could probably clean it out in one or two sessions of play, with perhaps another one or two used on travelling to the mine in the first place.

Rated 3 out of 5. It’s an old school dungeon crawl, it does the job for a reasonable price, but it’s not exceptional.

HUNGER OF THE IRON MAGE

A 20 page module by Dave Olson. 7 pages of background and statblocks, followed by a scenario in 9 scenes (I’m starting to see a pattern here).

The heroes are staying in a small dwarven town (near Keryhk Nhor) when it is attacked. After the attack, they are asked to visit a wizard who may be able to shed light on the reasons for the attack and the foe’s unusual battlecries. This leads them back into the old mine, where they can kill things and take their stuff in the traditional Old School manner.

This has a map key, but no map, so I dock it a point for that and rate it 2 out of 5. It’s easy enough to draw or recycle a map, but if you’re going to refer to it in the module, I want to see it there.

CONCLUSIONS

While these adventures are self-contained, the evolving setting material assumes that you play them in order, which is fair enough. They’re easy to drop into an existing campaign by changing a few names; I anticipate getting about 2-3 sessions of play out of each one.

In a typical Old School way, the setting evolves a piece at a time, the players (and GM) learning no more than they need for a given adventure. Each introduces a few classic monsters and snippets of easily-digestible background information.

As a group, I’d rate them average; overall, they deliver what I’d expect, with a few good points and a few bad.

Review: Darkness Visible

Excitement mounted in the Station Hub as the cargo shuttle from RPGNow delivered the latest component of Stars Without Number. This is Darkness Visible, the sourcebook for espionage campaigns.

Since I started playing Traveller in the late 1970s, my SF campaigns have always had an espionage component; the default situation for my PCs in such games is to be the “private contractors” that agencies turn to when they cannot, or don’t want to, deploy their own agents. This is probably due to overexposure to the works of Adam Hall, Len Deighton and Poul Anderson’s Flandry stories as a youth.

So, I was immensely interested in what Mr Crawford makes of this subgenre. And here it is; 97 pages of spy stuff, with his usual atmospheric chapter headings…

AGENTS OF THE STATE (1 page)

This is a capsule introduction to the book and its contents.

HOLD THE LINE (6 pages)

In similar vein to Skyward Steel’s equivalent chapter on the Navy, this traces the purpose and history of the Perimeter Agency, the foremost covert agency of the Terran Mandate; its fracturing into shards by the Scream; and the evolution of local networks, related and unrelated, since that time.

In earlier SWN books we have seen tantalising hints of the first rogue AI, Draco, and its rebellion against the Mandate. More is revealed, but chiefly in explaining the need to create the quasi-religious Perimeter Agency as a hedge against any recurrence of this disaster. Power corrupts, and over centuries some Agency outposts strayed from the true path; then the Scream came, and they were on their own. Those that still survive are intent on returning to star travel for one reason or another.

Meanwhile, those organisations previously opposed to the Mandate have used their skills to infiltrate elsewhere, and the relative cheapness of espionage and sabotage compared to naval and marine assaults mean that the majority of wars fought in the fading of the Silence are covert ones.

GOD DOESN’T KNOW MY NAME (6 pages)

This section explains how a spy organisation works in the setting, whatever its size and origin. Here we find information on surviving Perimeter Agencies, planetary networks operated by minor governments, and the smaller organisations set up by malcontents.

It discusses the ways in which one might become an agent, and the differences between the rank-and-file desk-bound agent and the elite operatives represented by the PCs.

A generic organisational template for an agency is provided, consisting of a director overseeing four bureaux: Internal Security, Foreign Intelligence, Research, and Support. While the section does mention the parallel organisations common in this arena, it immediately struck me that in the contemporary real world, the Internal Security and Foreign Intelligence bureaux are often different agencies; the FBI and CIA, or MI5 and MI6, for example.

The Perimeter Agency had a different structure, with a director controlling three bureaux, each devoted to a different kind of maltech threat, Support provided by family members of the agents, and Research held in the Mandate’s core worlds. The tales of how agencies survived the Scream and the Silence brought to mind Asimov’s Foundation novels, or more conventional conspiracy stories like Seven Days of the Condor. It seems entirely in keeping with the genre that some agencies are forced into completely useless tasks purely to meet the requirements of the expert systems controlling their equipment; Len Deighton would have been right at home there.

ARCHITECTS OF NIGHT (34 pages)

This is the largest single chapter, and provides tools for building the agencies, cabals and other organisations necessary for an espionage campaign. These are much like the factions of the core rulebook, but are focussed on direct employment of the PCs rather than generating background for a sandbox, and thus are a step away from a “pure” sandbox towards scripted adventures. The GM might want to use agencies instead of factions, rather than as well as, to reduce effort and complexity.

Like a faction, an agency has attributes, but these are determined by looking at its tags or elements, each of which affects the values of the seven attributes of Connection, Infiltration, Mobility, Muscle, Resources, Security and Tech, which range from 0-15. In like vein, there are agency turns as well as, or instead of, faction turns. While the GM can run all the agencies himself, the book assumes that the PCs help to create their employing agency, and set policy for it at the end of each session, taking on the role of one of the bureau chiefs or the director. PC agencies can do more in any given agency turn than NPC ones, and they always go first, too; but to counteract this, their more sinister opponents have more elements, and thus probably better attribute levels.

There is a 4-page handout provided for the players, giving the basics of how an agency turn works and what the elements look like.

During an agency turn, each agency can attempt to attack a rival agency’s elements, block an incoming attack, build or improve an element, discern a rival’s plans, and so forth. The attribute ratings of the two agencies involved determine the chances of success. Each action the PCs’ agency undertakes is potentially an adventure to run, assuming that the players and GM agree; in this case it is fleshed out using the Tradecraft section and run as a scenario, with success or failure depending on the outcome; otherwise, it is resolved by the GM’s die rolls.

Elements can be compromised by sabotage or dissent, in which case their ratings are reduced; adding both complexity and realism, an agency might not know whether an element is compromised until they try to use it. There are 21 common elements – armouries, military backing and many more – each of which is described, with the different effects of that element at each of three levels, examples of each, and 10 plot seeds for each one. There are also 7 uncommon elements, only used by maltech organisations, and not really suitable for the PCs’ agency; these lack plot seeds, largely because they are in a sense plot seeds themselves.

THOU SHALT NOT (26 pages)

This is another large chapter, and details the threats the Perimeter Agency was founded to contain; the various forms of maltech. Unfortunately, there is always somebody who thinks they are smart enough to use these in a controlled manner, or simply doesn’t care about the outcome.

The Three Forbidden Things which the Perimeter Agency had a remit to stamp out are genetically engineered human slaves, unbraked Artificial Intelligences, and weapons of planetary destruction. Each of these is discussed in turn, covering its history during and since the Mandate, who uses it currently and why, under what circumstances surviving Perimeter Agencies would consider it illicit technology, how the GM should set up suitable cults or other organisations in his campaign, and a selection of stock NPCs and cult capabilities.

Comparison to other games or stories comes easily. Eugenics cults could be used to emulate 2300AD’s Provolution, or W40K Chaos cults; godmind cults recall the Butlerian Jihad from Dune, or Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep, or the Virus from later editions of Traveller; doomsday cults could cover pretty much any pulp villain, James Bond opponent or terrorist organisation. If any of those makes you think “Hmm, there’s a campaign there,” this chapter gives you the tools to build your PCs’ enemies.

The chapter closes with a selection of 36 thematic tags with which to personalise your cult, ranging from Alien Influence to Lost Weapon to Totemic Beast (ooh, I can see Schrodinger making a comeback now). As with world tags in the core rules, each has a selection of friends, enemies, complications, things and places to hang scenarios from.

TRADECRAFT (14 pages)

After the background information and setup tools, we now come to the core of the ongoing game: Adventures. This section provides advice on running an espionage campaign, and generating adventures of intrigue and conspiracy.

Espionage missions are less of a sandbox and more structured than the typical SWN game, at least at the individual PC level; the troupe of players as a whole has sandbox-style freedom, but at the level of the agency which they jointly control. The players jointly agree what mission the PCs will be tasked with, and then the GM fleshes out the target, the antagonist and his goal, and the deadly schemes which will stand between the PCs and success – the PCs should expect to encounter about three individual schemes which weave together to achieve the antagonist’s objective, and demolish them in detail. In each scheme, the PCs must overcome obstacles to obtain leads or clues. Once they have a critical number of these, they move to the climactic scene in which they face off against the major villain. (Incidentally, I could see this working well with THW’s Larger Than Life, which has a similar mechanic.)

Kevin Crawford’s trademark tables appear late in the chapter, allowing the GM to generate randomly the schemes, methods and NPCs for each of six different types of missions. The tables are followed by a worked example. The length of the example makes me think that a GM would need to put a bit more preparation work into one of these than a standard SWN scenario.

UNKNOWN SOLDIERS (5 pages)

Finally, there are some new backgrounds, training packages, and items of equipment suitable for spies. Darkness Visible recommends that each PC has a roster of at least two agents, so that another can be brought in at short notice if the primary is incapacitated somehow. At the end of each adventure, the active PC gets appropriate experience, and one other PC in the player’s roster gets the same amount, representing his work on off-screen missions. Every player has another PC, namely one of the faceless directors who sets policy and creates missions – this is the role he plays when choosing the agency’s actions in the next agency turn.

The book ends with an index.

CONCLUSIONS

I can see this sourcebook being useful in a wide range of SF espionage campaigns, from SWN itself to Traveller of any flavour and into Dark Heresy country.

I’m debating whether to create a new campaign around this, or retrofit it into an existing one, but either way, I expect this one will see active use in my games pretty soon.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Disclaimer: My copy was provided to my for review purposes.