Top Picks of 2011

As 2011 draws to a close, here are my favourite gaming goodies of the year, in descending order of coolness. Drum roll please…

FIRST PLACE

  • Savage Worlds Deluxe Edition. Still my favourite game, as it is well-suited to zero-preparation gaming in the style of action-adventure movies. Deluxe shoulders aside the Explorers’ Edition because it adds archetypes and races.

JOINT SECOND PLACE

Too close to call this year!

THIRD PLACE

  • Red Tide. Cracking GM tools and setting information for fantasy RPGs, especially Labyrinth Lord.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

And with that, the Station is closing down for the holiday season. A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

The Unbestiary

So-called because it isn’t really a bestiary.

We know three things from the Savage Worlds Rules As Written:

  • d6 in a trait represents an average human, and d12 represents world-class capability.
  • An average soldier has d6 in most relevant traits, while an experienced one has d8.
  • The average PC archetype has a d10 in his or her primary traits.

So we can estimate trait levels as follows:

  • d4: Below average.
  • d6: Average for someone who does this for a living.
  • d8: Trait level for an experienced professional.
  • d10: Trait level for a hero (or antihero).
  • d12: World-class trait.

Parry and Toughness can be worked out easily from the appropriate trait level, and melee weapons can be assumed to make best use of the character’s Strength.

Since this is all in the Rules As Written, at least in the Deluxe Edition, I no longer need the One Page Bestiary. Or indeed any Bestiary; I can make encounters up as I go along…

"Thinks: Ivan is a professional thief so he’ll have the Thief edge, and d8 in Agility, Lockpicking, Stealth and Streetwise. Everything else is a d6, including Strength, so he’ll have a shortsword to get the best damage he can."

Later:

"Since the PCs killed Ivan and he was reanimated by evil sorcerors, he now has the Undead attribute as well."

Or how about Pagurids? (Look it up!) Giant carrion-eaters of the seashore, not above producing their own carrion if necessary. Look like big hermit crabs, terracotta in colour.

Let’s see; d8 Strength, Vigor and Fighting, d6 in other attributes and Notice, +3 Toughness for the hard shell, and honkin’ big claws which attack for Str + d8. Job done.

Also, there is a lead to a further adventure once the PCs beat them off: Where do they get their shells from? Something pretty big, evidently. Possibly plate-armoured fighters, in which case the treasure is obvious, though they must then have some sort of tough secretion to fill up the holes they don’t want.

Pagurids took less than 60 seconds to invent and type (I was timing myself). This could even be the way SW was intended to be run.

Gotta love Savage Worlds.

Review: Pathfinder Beginner’s Box

I know I said I wouldn’t buy anything else. The goblins made me do it. Little psychopaths.

Summary: Best introductory RPG I’ve seen in years. WotC, this is how you should have done it.

Hero’s Handbook (68 pages)

This dives straight into a 7-page solo adventure, teaching the absolute basics, in which you’re a fighter exploring a crypt. That’s followed by a one-page example of group play.

Next comes two pages of Getting Started; how to use the book, how to read dice.

The next 32 pages cover how to create a character, races, classes, spells, skills, and feats. The Beginner Box here has a perfect mix of character generation; there are pregenerated PCs if you want to dive straight in, recommended skills and feats if you want to create your own guy (or gal) but aren’t sure what the optimum mix is, or full-on generation for three races (dwarves, elves, humans) and four classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard) if you want. Crucially, you can not only create characters, but advance them up to 5th level as well.

The equipment section covers the basic armour, weapons and adventuring gear a starting character might want in six pages. Each is presented as an illustrated text box, and my immediate thought was that from the PDF version of the rules one could print these pages on card, trim them, and use them as equipment cards.

Then there are 14 pages of how to play the game; skill checks, combat, spellcasting. The last page explains how to level up. By limiting the rules to what you need to know, and eliminating the special cases that bulk out the core rulebook, this does a very good job of introducing the game in an easily digested manner.

There are one-page summaries of character generation and rules, the former inside the front cover, and the latter actually as the back cover – this is a nice touch as I wouldn’t have to crease the book open to see it.

Game Master Guide (100 pages)

Again we’re straight into the action, with a sample dungeon of 10 locations/encounters covered over 15 pages, some of which step out into explaining basic rules.

This is followed by an 8-page "how to be a GM" section; what a GM does, how to prepare and run an adventure. That theme is expanded in sections on creating an adventure (8 pages, including an illustrative skeleton scenario), rules for environments and their hazards (16 pages – note that this includes traps), magic items (12 pages of goodies for the PCs to find), monsters (27 pages of vile nasties guarding said items, including random encounter tables), the default base town of Sandpoint (4 pages, including maps of the town and surrounds, and half-a-dozen adventure seeds), and conditions (2 pages on the specific rules for being blinded, staggered and so on).

The book finishes with a half-dozen pages of quick reference charts, again with the combat reference (a different one, for the GM) at the end.

Other Goodies

A "read this first" sheet obviously aimed at complete beginners.

Character sheets; a blank one, and one for each of the four pregenerated characters included in the box – cleric, fighter, rogue and wizard. You can download extra copies of all of those from Paizo’s website. The layout of these sheets and their cross-referencing to the rules is exemplary; the pregen sheets in particular could be plonked down in front of a complete novice, and they’d be playing in minutes.

A flip mat, with a blank ruled grid 24" x 30" on one side, and a sample dungeon on the other (to go with the introductory adventure in the GM’s Guide).

Cardboard character tokens for each combination of race, class and gender in the rules, plus common monsters.

2011112601

Above: Scene from our playtest session using Pathfinder. The party are searching for whatever it is that has been eating local livestock without permission. In the cave system where they think it lives, the elven rogue noticed a treasure chest the others didn’t, and decided not to share;  he is returning from looting it, pursued by a reefclaw.

Credits: Battlemat by Paizo, figures by WotC.

Conclusions

Since I got the open beta of Pathfinder years ago, I have wanted to like it, but been put off by the size of the core rulebook. The Beginner’s Box does what I wanted; pares the massive complexity of the rules engine down to something I can understand quickly and explain easily to casual gamers. It broadens out the appeal of Pathfinder from D&D 3rd edition diehards to new gamers.

I reckon I could run a campaign for 3-6 months without needing to step up to the full rulebooks. I have to try this, probably in combination with Dungeon Bash as GM-less campaign. It might even challenge Savage Worlds as my poison of choice.

This one is moving into the tryouts for 2012.

One Page Bestiary Version 2

The One Page Bestiary is being reworked, as I reread Greywulf’s The Unconstrained GM and now have a better idea. Meanwhile, here it is, preserved for posterity:

“Less important NPCs, however, can be designed using a sort of shorthand. With this system, once the NPC’s career has been chosen, the referee merely decides whether the NPC is rated as Green, Experienced, Veteran or Elite. This ranking tells the referee what skill level the NPC has in Primary and Secondary skills related to his profession.” – 2300AD Director’s Guide.

My Savage Worlds games often use quick-and-dirty NPCs and monsters, and this is how I build them on the fly. It’s derived from the way that NPCs are handled in GDW’s 2300AD game.

STOCK NPCS

Stock NPCs have the same die type for any attribute or skill which is appropriate for their role in the scenario. (Use common sense here; a Seasoned soldier probably has Strength d8 and Fighting d8, but Knowledge: Archaeology d8 or Smarts d8 are unlikely.) Skills and attributes not relevant to the NPC’s role rarely come into play, but if they are needed, attributes default to d6 (normal human level) and skills to d4-2 (untrained). Stock NPCs are divided into four ranks, matching those for Player Characters:

  • Novice (d6): Equivalent to d20 level 1-3. Arcanists have Bolt, Deflect, Healing, 10 Power Points. Fantasy fighters have leather armour and shortswords, Parry 5, Toughness 6 (1).
  • Seasoned (d8): Equivalent to d20 level 4-6. Arcanists add Blast and have 15 Power Points. Fantasy fighters have chain hauberks and longswords, Parry 6, Toughness 8 (2).
  • Veteran (d10): Equivalent to d20 level 7-10. Arcanists have 20 Power Points. Fantasy fighters have plate armour and greatswords, Parry 7, Toughness 10 (3).
  • Heroic (d12): Equivalent to d20 level 11-15. Arcanists have 25 power points. Fantasy fighters have plate mail and greatswords, Parry 8, Toughness 11 (3).

In modern or SF games, Stock NPCs have the same equipment whatever their rank.

MONSTROUS ABILITIES

Add one or more Monstrous Abilities from the Savage Worlds rulebook to a Stock NPC to create an instant monster. Examples:

  • Construct: +2 on rolls to recover from Shaken; not affected by called shots, Wound Modifiers, disease or poison.
  • Undead: As Construct, but also has +2 Toughness.

EXAMPLES

  • Mid-Level Dungeoneering Party: Three Seasoned fighters and a Seasoned arcanist.
  • Warforged Sorceror: Construct arcanist.

FOR OTHER GAMES

There are several similar approaches for D&D 4E – if I still played that, I’d use either Greywulf’s version or the one from Sly Flourish.

Female Adventurers

One way in which the typical RPG setting differs from real-world history is the prevalence of female adventurers; they are much more common in fantasy adventure than they were historically. (Not that I have a problem with their prevalence; for a long time, my gaming groups had more women than men in them.)

However, there have been times when women were more likely to be in positions of power, typically when there are not enough men to fill the traditional male roles – for example, shortly after the Black Death, or working in industry during World War II, or the case of the Albanian Sacred Virgins.

So, if your fantasy setting has significant numbers of lady adventurers, mayors, and so forth, it’s likely that at some point in living memory a disaster struck which dramatically reduced the population, and possibly had a disproportionate impact on men.

That’s going to have a knock-on impact in other areas too; specifically, if there aren’t enough people to go around, those who are available have more bargaining power – enter higher wages, better working conditions, and more social mobility.

Oh look, the typical RPG setting has that, too.