Review: An Echo Resounding

I see Kevin Crawford has written a book for domain-level play in Labyrinth Lord, and given that I’ve liked everything else he has released, it was a no-brainer to buy that as well.

This is Sine Nomine Publishing’s take on the presumed end game of OD&D, namely PCs in charge of their own fiefs.

Summary: 111 page Labyrinth Lord supplement covering the creation and operation of domains. Labyrinth Lord or some other D&D style game required; SNP’s Red Tide useful, but not essential.

INTRODUCTION (1 page)

This explains the contents and aims of the book. Key goals are that ruling a domain is optional for PCs, and that domains should serve as a source of adventures and consistent background for the GM whether any, all, or none of the PCs want to be a feudal lord.

DOMAIN PLAY IN A CAMPAIGN (4 pages)

This expands on the key goals, and recommends embedding domain-level play structures in a campaign from the beginning, emphasising the value of a clear political landscape. While traditionally OD&D assumes that everyone becomes a landholder at about 9th level, this book assumes that some will, some won’t; those who do will take up control at different levels; and those who don’t are still useful henchmen for NPC lords. More on how that works later.

Meanwhile, the book acknowledges that some players just want to stay freebooters their whole careers, and offers advice on handling their concerns – will they be forced into running a fief, will their PCs be edged out of the limelight by those who do? No, because adventures can be structured to retain their involvment.

It’s also notable that the recommended campaign focus is smaller for An Echo Resounding than for Adventurer-Conqueror-King, recently reviewed on this very blog. While ACK looks to the level of kingdoms and empires, AER focuses on a small border region of a few towns and maybe one city. (If you want to grow beyond that, the Domain Management chapter has ideas for it.)

CREATING CAMPAIGN REGIONS (30 pages)

This is the heart of the book; how to set up your campaign so that it will grow easily and naturally into domain-level play. As with all SNP rules, the GM is warned against burnout from overdoing the setting creation process. The design goal for this chapter is that you should be able to create a borderland region and its political structure in a single afternoon, elaborating on it later as play dictates.

The region is up to 300 miles on a side, and contains a number of locations, each of which is just a place the PCs might be interested in; locations are rated for Military, Wealth and Social values, and also have traits – similar to the tags in other SNP products – and obstacles. Traits are capsule descriptions of things that make the location unique, while obstacles are problems it must overcome, usually by hiring adventurers to deal with them. Finally, locations have assets, used in the Domain Management and Mass Combat rules later.

Region setup is simple. Start with a map, either a hexmap or a free-form sketch; the book notes in passing that a map isn’t really necessary, but by this point I already have one in mind.

On the map, the GM places one city of 10-15 thousand people, four towns of one or two thousand inhabitants, and five ruins or places of mystery for the PCs to investigate. For each town, place a Resource location – a source of some valuable commodity such as food, lumber, gems or whatever – a little way from towns or cities; this makes it easier for conflicts over them to develop.

Next, mark likely routes between cities and towns on the map. Halfway along each route is a monster lair, preying on the traffic; disposing of these is what adventurers do.

All of these numbers can be scaled up proportionally for bigger or more well-developed areas, or just because you feel like it; but I think this would give me enough to be going on with.

Each location (by now you have a couple of dozen) is fleshed out with traits from a table for that type of location. Each city, town or resource location gets an obstacle – initially, the obstacle is what has prevented a larger polity from seizing effective control of it. If you’re using Red Tide as well, this is where you roll up the site tags for those locations.

(PCs may well establish their own locations, even if they don’t control them; remember that a location is something that interests PCs, so expect to find more and mark them on the map as play progresses.)

Now the actual Domains appear; these are the towns, cities or other areas which are the movers and shakers in the campaign. Many of the towns and cities have neither the capability nor the desire to play a role on the regional stage, but you need some that are. Domains in AER consist of 2-3 locations which act together and are controlled by one leadership. Those leaders have somehow come to terms with the local obstacles, but anyone else wanting to take over will need to make their own arrangements.

Next, the Hall of Infamy. These are the regional-level Big Bads who are foreshadowed in early adventures, and may eventually be taken down by the PCs. They consist of the Prime Evil, a challenge worthy of the maximum level you expect PCs to reach in the campaign; two lesser threats, a match for 9th level PCs; and four villains who will give mid-level parties a run for their money, each of whom probably occupies one of the lairs placed earlier. Lesser enemies are bit parts, with no ongoing role in the campaign story.

Again, this approach can be scaled to give more foes if you wish.

Two special cases are considered; venturing afar, i.e. adventures which go a long way off-map, and retrofitting the system to an existing map.

If the party ventures afar on a specific quest, then all you need are a few locations they will pass through on their way. If they’re moving in for the long term, you need another region.

Retrofitting is for a GM with an existing campaign. Take your map, pick a region, and pick which towns and cities matter. The others continue to exist, but for whatever reason are not strategically valuable to Domains. The purpose of this is to focus the GM’s effort on a manageable number of locations. From this point on, proceed as if generating a new region. If you have existing power structures, they become Domains. In name, they might all be part of the same empire, but this just drives conflict underground.

ACK bases its domain generation on demographics; AER does not, but provides a page of instructions on reverse-engineering the demographics from the domain should you wish.

Next, a series of tables to flesh out locations; each outcome influences the owning domain’s Military, Wealth and/or Social ratings, usually by adding +2 to one of them. The city and town tables cover origin (why were they built?); activities (why are they still here?); and obstacles (what’s in their way?). The ruins tables cover its nature (what was it before?), its traits (why would you want to control it?); and obstacles (why don’t you?). The resources tables show the type of resource, and obstacles to obtaining it. Lair tables determine the lair’s nature.

Remember those pesky obstacles? As a Domain ruler, you have two ways of dealing with them – either commission a party of adventurers to rid you of them, or take us a Solve an Obstacle action and the correct unit type to have a crack at them. Until you have dealt with the obstacle, it reduces your Military, Social and Wealth ratings. This would have made more sense to me as part of the next chapter, but that’s not an enormous problem as it is the last section in this one.

DOMAIN MANAGEMENT (12 pages)

Domains are, in a way, a different type of character. Consider its Military, Wealth and Social scores as its attributes, and its assets as equipment. It has saving throws, used in overcoming obstacles. Domains are managed in domain turns, each lasting roughly one month of game time and intended to be handled in 10-15 minutes of effort at the end of each session. PC-controlled domains get two actions per turn, NPC-controlled domains only one.

Actions include making or destroying assets or locations, moving or repairing an asset, accumulating wealth, attacking a location, resolving an obstacle, punish a scapegoat for your atrocity, and so forth. Note that siphoning off funds for personal use is also an action.

Assets include shrines, military units, charity, friendship with demihumans, slaves, and many more. Each affects the domain’s Military, Wealth and/or Social ratings. Assets cost Wealth to maintain, which places an upper limit on how much power a domain can project. Assets are assigned by the GM based on the location’s role in the game.

Domains require at least one location as the seat of their power, and most wish to expand. They do this by resolving the obstacle at a new location, then persuading the locals to accept their rule. Multiple competing domains may be interested in the same location at the same time. Conquering a location by force destroys its assets, and it must then be rebuilt; if you use diplomacy, the location might give up some assets willingly.

If the obstacle can be resolved by simply throwing money, arrows or spells at it, then resolution is probably a domain action. Otherwise, it’s an adventure for the PCs.

Meanwhile, at home, it’s tempting for the ruler to hurry up domain actions by executing dissidents and committing atrocities. These give bonuses on the saving throw for the current problem, but penalties on Military, Wealth and Social ratings until the ruler dies or pins the blame on a scapegoat. (Is that a scenario I hear, offstage?) More gentle management, however, means any rebels who do arise are better equipped.

It’s good to be the king. The domain ruler (or rulers) get a cash income from their domain, and can call on its assets (temples, troop units, magical schools) to do things for him. Rulers can appoint viziers to do the boring parts for them.

Vast domains are handled by scaling things up. The city becomes an urbanised section of a province, the troop unit becomes a thousand archers instead of the usual hundred, the map gets bigger.

This chapter concludes with an example of domain-level play.

MASS COMBAT (14 pages)

Disputes between domains are often military in nature, and thus a simple mass combat system is needed. This chapter provides it; it has a turn sequence much like that for personal combat, and units representing about 100 humanoids, a lair’s-worth of other creatures, or individual champions such as the PCs, moving about on a rough map of the battlefield.

In effect, these rules use the personal combat rules, with each figure representing a unit. Heroes can fight alone, or join a unit to give it bonuses. Some spells can be used only against heroes, others can also be targeted at troop units.

Sieges are handled in an abstract manner. Assets can be destroyed, and may have to be rebuilt; troops can gain experience, which increases their unit’s attack rolls, morale, hit dice, AC and/or special qualities. Not very far, and not very fast, but it does.

HEROES (6 pages)

Once PCs reach a certain level, they begin to gain parallel levels as a Champion. Each time they gain a Champion level, they may choose an appropriate special ability or “gift” from a list of several dozen, which makes them valuable to a domain. (NPCs don’t get these abilities as a rule, to make them simpler for the GM to adjudicate.) In addition, they get one gift based on their race and class.

Gifts will bring you followers, give a troop unit you attach yourself to combat bonuses, or modify your domain’s MSW ratings.

The bonuses from gifts don’t stack, so there’s no point two PCs taking the same one, or one PC taking the same one twice.

I can immediately see assassination scenarios springing from this. (“Ragnar’s Martial Glory grants his Domain +4 Military, I want you lot to kill him so they become conquerable.”)

THE WESTMARK (38 pages)

This is a detailed example of the rules above, in the form of one of the regions in Red Tide, with a colour hex-map for the GM, a much less detailed black and white one for the players (or as a basis for a different region entirely) and 40 locations fleshed out with game statistics and plot hooks.  As well as being a how-to guide, it is usable as an “instant” region, or can be mined for locations etc. to insert into your own game.

The book closes with an index and the OGL. No forms for the GM this time; none are really necessary. Hex paper is optional, and you probably have a source of that already. If not, try Dragonsfoot.

CONCLUSIONS

The obvious comparisons for me are with OD&D and Adventurer-Conqueror-King.

Even re-reading OD&D with 35 years’ gaming experience, I can see that my PC could use his money to build a castle and clear a domain, but then what? It’s unclear. Yes, I could work it out for myself, but the 30-40 hours per week I put into RPGs in my twenties are no longer viable for me, and dropping another $10 or so to get much of the work done for me is a very fair trade.

Reading ACK left me with the feeling that I’d love to use it, but wouldn’t have the time or (frankly) determination to see it through.

Reading An Echo Resounding left me keen to start using it, right away, confident that it could grow organically in whatever time I gave it.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.

Shadows of Keron Episode 6: Death of a Tyrant, Part 4

Many adventures ago, the party acquired a magic item called the Stone of Recall. When activated, this teleports everyone touching it to the last nominated “respawn point”. I’ve had great fun with this; by the time things are bad enough to use it, the heroes have generally split up, and whoever uses it has to leave some friends behind.

While wandering around the desert, the party completely forgot they had it (not that it would have worked, for reasons they have yet to determine), and when they did remember it, almost immediately remembered they had last set it to the lair of the Big Bad. Then they forgot it again while holed up in their erstwhile patron’s house, and fought the waves of minions he sent against them.

This session, they remembered it again, and used it to teleport a strike team to the Big Bad’s lair with the dual aims of killing him and rescuing their former patron, who has the Attractive edge (hey, this is pulp).

As usual when running a published adventure, I shall say little to minimise the risk of spoilers. The highlights, however, were:

  • The strike team teleporting right into the middle of minions in platoon strength, from which they escaped through adroit use of area effect powers and setting fire to the location.
  • Fun using the Puppet power to turn the PCs against each other, and Lower Trait to drop the party tank’s Fighting skill to Keystone Cops levels.
  • Garstrewt continuing to pound Nessime with a crowbar even after the Puppet wore off.
  • The kidnapped patron regaining consciousness to the feeling of Garstrewt rubbing her all over with olive oil, ostensibly to make it easier to slip her free from her bonds.

NO POWER POINTS

This was the second playtest session for this option, and we’ve decided to keep it and allow those who took Power Points as an advance to swap it out for something else. The main impacts of the option continue to be:

  • PCs with Arcane Backgrounds using a wider range of powers (notably buffs) and using powers more often.
  • Spellcasters burning through bennies slightly faster, mostly to avoid being Shaken or Wounded by failing arcane skill rolls.
  • No need to track Power Points.

BEAST & BARBARIANS – REFLECTIONS

While B&B recommends only one PC in the party should have an Arcane Background, the previously established group has three. I suspect this is making things easier for them, I’ll have to look to beefing up the opposition.

Inspirations from Vornheim – 1

First in a series of unknown length.

I like Zak’s urbancrawl rules (from the Vornheim City Kit) very much, but I prefer to work on a PC rather than with pen and paper. So I thought about a modification to make that easier, and came up with this: The main streets of your city, or corridors of your dungeon, are letter shapes which spell out the words for number. (Zak draws the numbers themselves in a semi-random way.) They interconnect where words share a letter.

Here’s an example; the main corridor layout for a six level dungeon.

   S
FIVE
OX
U
THREE
W
ONE

The first level (“ONE”) has three main areas, each with a corridor. The westernmost one is built around a 20’ wide circular corridor. Level two (“TWO”) starts with an identical main corridor, although it has a different room layout, then runs off northwards into two other main areas. And so on.

There’s no reason this couldn’t be done with other words, for example the names of the boss monsters on each level, or the main NPC or industry in a town ward.

My PCs almost never map, so they’d never know.

The Thunderer–Savaged

I wanted to see how a Legends-style cult would work in Savage Worlds, so I decided to have a crack at converting the Cult of the Thunderer from the core rulebook. Setting aside the description of the cult and its aims, I read the descriptions of various skills and powers in both rulebooks, picked ones that had similar effects and assumed that skills applied to Wild Cards, so the probabilities of success should allow for a Wild Die. I also assumed that each point of POW dedicated represented a power learned. I wound up with this:

POWERS AVAILABLE

Any cult can teach common magic, whose effects are mimicked by the Savage Worlds powers Beast Friend, Bolt, Boost/Lower Trait, Burst, Confusion, Deflection, Detect/Conceal Arcana, Dispel, Elemental Manipulation, Environmental Protection, Healing, Light/Obscure, Quickness, Slow, Slumber, Smite, and Telekinesis.

In addition, this cult can teach members with Arcane Background (Miracles) the following powers: Armour, Blast, Succor.

CULT SKILLS

The cult offers training in the following: Climbing, Faith, Fighting, Knowledge (Religion), Notice. (That tells me that it favours Agility, Smarts, and Spirit in its members.)

RANKS

Lay Members: Anyone who supports cult warriors and worships at cult shrines can be a lay member.

Initiates: To become an initiate requires d4 in each of the cult skills. I decided to waive the requirement for one power, because the appropriate Arcane Background for a cult is Miracles, and that gives you at least two. I might waive the requirement for Faith d4 as well, since an initiate might not have Arcane Background, without which Faith is pointless.

Acolytes: To be recognised as an acolyte, the cult member must have killed an enemy of the tribe, have Arcane Background (Miracles), and know at least three powers. Novice PCs would probably qualify for acolyte status early on, as they could start with all the powers and skills they need, and would only need to kill a foe – sounds like the first adventure.

Priests: To become a priest, the cult member must have d8 or better in each cult skill, Arcane Background (Miracles) and at least five powers. That would need somewhere in the region of 9 advances, so a PC priest would most likely be of Veteran rank.

High Priests: These must have d12 in all cult skills, Arcane Background (Miracles), and at least seven powers. That needs about another 12 advances from priest, so PC high priests are likely to be well into Legendary rank.

This has promise, I think; I like the idea of the PCs being part of a larger organisation, and I’ve seen cults work well in the past.

$1 Downloads: Legend

This one, I got partly because it’s only a buck at the time of writing, and partly out of nostalgia for the first edition RuneQuest campaign I played in at university, which was a blast. I’ve heard bad things about what Mongoose has done to the RuneQuest rules, and I found RuneQuest II and III overly complex for my taste, but let’s take a look inside, shall we? The risk is less than the price of a cup of coffee…

Summary: Generic swords and sorcery rules using percentile dice, derived from the popular RuneQuest system, which also gave birth to Call of Cthulhu and Basic Role Playing. The focus is on the PC’s development and his interaction with his community, rather than killing things and taking their stuff.

The book is a 242 page PDF, split into 13 chapters. At the back are a double-sided character sheet, and an Open Gaming Licence – Mongoose has made the whole game OGL, of which I approve heartily. As is now usual, the PDF has layers so you can turn off the background imagery for printing – again, I approve.

WELCOME TO LEGEND (3 pages)

Here’s your introduction. It assumes you’ve played RPGs before, which is a safe enough bet; most people begin in D&D, and some then move on into other games such as this.

ADVENTURER CREATION (33 pages)

PCs in Legend are called adventurers; Alaric the Brave is used as an example character throughout the game. One begins by generating the seven basic characteristics; Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Power, Dexterity and Charisma. The traditional way is to roll 3d6 for each one, but several other options are presented, including a point-buy system.

Attributes are now generated from the characteristics: The number of combat actions per round, derived from Dexterity and Intelligence; damage bonus, derived from Strength and Size; hit points for each location, derived from Constitution and Size; improvement roll modifier, based on Charisma; Magic Points, based on Power; Strike Rank, based on Dexterity and Intelligence. Movement is 8 metres per round for humans.

While combat actions dictates how often the adventurer acts per combat round, strike rank shows who goes first. Strike rank is modified later by the weapon used and armour worn.

Different hit points in each hit location is a reliable indicator that the game will be too complex for me, but let’s see what else it has in its pocketses first.

High Charisma making it easier to improve the character in play baffled me to start with, but the rules explain this is because Charismatic adventurers get more help from friends and relatives.

Characters enter play at 1d4 + 16 years of age.

They also have a basic skill level in 19-20 common skills, such as Unarmed Combat or First Aid. The 20th, Common Magic, may or may not be available depending on whether the GM thinks every character should be able to cast simple spells or not; my biggest beef with original RuneQuest was that there wasn’t enough niche protection for magic users, anyone could cast spells, so I’m pleased to see this as an option – if I remember rightly, it was introduced in RuneQuest II.

Note that traditionally thievish skills such as Stealth or Sleight of Hand are Common Skills, so thieves don’t have much niche protection although spellcasters might.

This defines the adventurer as he was at the age of 14-15. However, he is several years older and has some experience already when he begins adventuring; to represent this, the player now chooses a culture (barbarian, civilised, nomad or primitive) and a profession (a choice of 30, including alchemist, noble, soldier, thief and so forth), each of which provides additional skills and bonuses to existing skills; culture also defines initial wealth and, later, which spells are available to the character.

Each adventurer also has a number of Free Skill Points to tailor his skills package. By this point, the adventurer will have 30-odd skills, rated from around 20% to around 70%; note that each language, group of weapons and so on is a separate skill.

Several die rolls generate some backstory around the adventurer’s family, its reputation, and connections, as well as background events – a very simple lifepath. This process generates contacts, rivals and enemies, and as in Mongoose Traveller, can be used to explain how the PCs came to know each other.

The PC now gets its Hero Points (always 2 to start with, more can be gained in play) and magic spells (if permitted). PCs begin with basic personal equipment, one weapon relevant to their skills, and whatever they feel like buying. Sorcerors also get a grimoire of spells, while priests get divine spells appropriate to their cult.

SKILLS (28 pages)

You may have guessed already that since skills are rated as percentages ("Stealth 45%"), when you try to use one, you roll percentage dice, and succeed if the score is your skill rating or less. Really good rolls are critical successes, and really bad ones are critical failures ("fumbles"); the GM applies modifiers to the roll based on circumstances, and generally also gets to say what the effect of critical success or failure is. Note that it is entirely acceptable to have skill ratings over 100%, this gives you a better chance of success when the modifiers are heavily stacked against you.

As usual, there are rules for opposed tasks (which replace the earlier Resistance Table, now defunct) and co-operative tasks, as well as a few other wrinkles; then we’re into the skill list.

There are nearly 50 skills, each described in detail with its own rules. I won’t list them all, but you should find any skill you need for the pre-gunpowder world. It’s worth noting, however, that characters can learn combat styles such as "Spear and Shield", which allow them to train that combination as if it were one skill. That’s an elegant way of reducing the number of skills on the character sheet whilst encouraging adventurers to train with sensible combinations of wargear.

GAME SYSTEM (28 pages)

Here, the core mechanic of "roll % dice, score under your skill to succeed" is embellished into a full system.

There are three timescales in the game: Combat takes place in 5 second rounds; local time is used for tasks taking a few minutes or hours, such as making something simple or persuading an NPC; and strategic time is used for things taking days to years, such as long-distance travel. More on combat later.
 
Improvement rolls are different than I remember from original Runequest; I never actually played RQ II or RQ III. At the end of each session, the adventurer gets a number of improvement rolls (typically 3), each of which can be used on one known skill. You make a skill roll, and if you miss, your skill improves by 1d4+1 %; if you roll your current skill or less, it increases by 1%. You add bonuses for Intelligence and Charisma to the roll, which is how it’s possible to advance beyond 100%.

This retains the elegance I liked about RQ improvement, in particular that the better you are, the harder it is to improve; but using a fixed number of rolls which the player allocates removes the "golf caddy" syndrome I often saw in RQ combat – fight with weapon A until you’ve done enough to ensure an improvement roll, then switch to weapon B, then C, and so on.

Improvement rolls can also be used to boost characteristics; it takes as many rolls as the current value of the characteristic to increase it by one point. Characters can also get training in skills as well as using improvement rolls to boost them; training seems to be the only way to learn a new skill, but remember you already know all the skills you can use untrained.

What you’d expect: Rules for aging, damage from environmental hazards, disease, poison, falls, long term subsistence costs, encumbrance, healing, fatigue, damaging inanimate objects etc. Example diseases and poisons are provided; a high Resilience skill lets you heal damage more quickly, but on average you’ll heal between one hit point per three days and one per 12 hours. I won’t dwell on these because my style of play (see The Manifesto, tab at top of page) doesn’t use them often, and so I know I can safely skip over them and focus on characters, combat and magic.

What you might not expect: Rules for making a living between adventures – this is a necessity, because while some of the party are spending weeks training in their skills, carrying out their duties to their temples and so on, the rest of them are kicking their heels, and may as well take on some part-time work to reduce the drain on their savings.

Rewards: I’ve mentioned skill improvement; adventurers also gain 0-4 hero points per adventure. These are used to power heroic abilities (see below), and may also be used to gain another action in a combat round, reroll a skill roll you don’t like, turn a major wound into a glancing blow, or gain insight into a problem. As usual for this kind of token, it gives the player partial narrative control over the story.

EQUIPMENT (29 pages)

One of the things I noticed about RQ to start with was the paucity of equipment. I felt this was probably historically accurate; once he’d got a mount, weapons, and armour, your average mediaeval hero probably started thinking in terms of owning land, fine clothing, and an advantageous marriage. This has been eroded in Legend, which has – for example – three pages of different garments your adventurer can wear.

As usual for an RPG, the focus is on combat gear, because that’s the stuff that needs specific rules.

Armour reduces incoming damage by up to 6 points of damage per hit, thus protecting your hit points; lowers your strike rank, making your attacks slower; and slows your movement. Its encumbrance varies depending on your Size. Since hit location is an integral part of combat in Legend, you can have different armour on each hit location.

Each weapon is rated for damage dealt, required Strength and Dexterity, size, reach, encumbrance, armour and hit points (for resisting damage itself), cost, encumbrance, and which combat manoeuvres can be performed with it.

Other things listed include food, lodging, general equipment like torches and writing kits, animals, and transport. You should know by now that I don’t pay much attention to equipment chapters.

COMBAT (30 pages)

The game aims to make combat deadly, tactical, and fun, while preserving a cinematic flavour. I’d say from reading it that it probably succeeds at the first, second and fourth of these, but I can’t judge the third without actually playing it a few times.

A combat round begins each combatant rolling initiative, which is 1d10 plus modified strike rank. In each round, you may move, and make your allowed number of combat actions; you can split your movement between the actions as you wish, allowing you to engage several enemies in a tight group in one round.

Combat actions include attacking, parrying, casting a spell, evading, and so on; you can delay your actions until later in the round if you wish. Each action is a percentile roll against the relevant skill, with the usual options of critical success, success, failure, and fumble. The GM has tables for fumble effects, which are always great fun. Additionally, the effect of your action depends on how well you did compared to your opponent; if you succeeded and he fumbled, you do better than if he had just failed. This manifests itself by granting the victor one or more from a range of options, which he selects before rolling damage; these can blind the opposition temporarily, disarm him, let you choose the hit location where your blow lands, and so forth.

Now, I have a beef with all systems which include parrying rolls, and it is that they slow down combat. Fights between experienced opponents last for many rounds, since the attacker has a very good chance of hitting, and the defender has a very good chance of negating that hit, so there’s a lot of dice rolling and not much damage inflicted. This can only work at all in systems where characters don’t get more hit points as they improve.

Legend partially addresses this by having the amount of damage deflected by a parry vary from all (RQ standard) to none, depending on the relative size of the weapons, and by the combat options for better success than the enemy – both are conceptually neat, but increase complexity.

If you manage to hit your foe, you damage a random hit location. So long as a hit location (say an arm) still has hit points left, it can be used normally; at zero hit points or less, limbs stop working and hits elsewhere make you lose consciousness. When it is fully negative (say, at -5 hit points if it started with +5), limbs are permanently maimed, and other locations have a significant chance of causing instant death.

You can imagine tracking all that for a dozen or so monsters. Fortunately, there are now simplified and optional rules for mooks, which I would definitely use. That way, I would only be tracking one or two detailed characters, like the players themselves.

MAGIC (3 pages)

This is a short introductory section, explaining the different types of magic, and the use and recovery of Magic Points. To cast a spell, you pay the number of magic points it requires, and make a skill roll; if successful, you apply the effects.

COMMON MAGIC (15 pages)

This is the basic magic which may (or may not) be available to all adventurers. Although there are a variety of buffs for non-combat skills, common magic is mostly for improving your chances in a fight.

Most such spells have levels (e.g. "Bladesharp 3"); higher levels have more powerful effects, but take longer to cast and cost more points. Learning a new spell requires several improvement rolls; you have to know any lower-level versions of the same spell before learning higher-level ones.

Common magic grants bonuses on skill rolls, adjusts characteristics, inflicts or heals minor damage, or has some other effect such as confusing foes or making an area dark as night. (Note that if you adjust a characteristic, you have to recalculate all the related parts of your character sheet – related skills, strike rank, whatever.)

DIVINE MAGIC (19 pages)

Divine magic is only available to those who have made a formal commitment to a deity and a related cult – originally in RQ, these were Initiates, RuneLords and RunePriests, and the spells were known as Rune Magic. The type of spells available depends on the deity and their sphere of interest; a harvest god and a god of thunder probably grant their followers different spells.

The formal commitment manifests itself in the amount of your Power you dedicate to your god, which may be as much as a quarter of your total Power initially, and more later; the more you dedicate, the more powerful the spells granted. Your own common magic can only be powered by points you have not dedicated. You may dedicate Power to multiple different gods.

The big advantage of divine magic is that it doesn’t cost magic points to cast; the god powers it for you. To use it, you require a Pact skill and a Lore skill. The Lore skill is the one used to cast the spells, the Pact measures the strength of the relationship with your god, and improves based on how well your actions align with his or her desires. (You can also devote improvement rolls to it.) Usually, once a spell is cast, you have to visit the temple and perform a ritual before you can use it again; it’s more like Vancian one-shot magic than common magic is.

The higher the Pact skill, the more like the deity the adventurer becomes, although there are no specific rules for this – it’s left to the player’s roleplaying skill. Your god will set you quests to allow you to prove your skill and commitment, which is an obvious source of scenario ideas.

As the adventurer advances from lay member of a cult, to initiate, to acolyte, to priest, it becomes easier to recover spells once cast, and the more powerful the spells he can learn.

Divine spells alter the environment and weather, bless crops, defend against hostile magic, summon or dismiss elementals, heal wounds, create illusions, or enhance combat abilities.

SORCERY (19 pages)

Where common magic is a collection of charms, and divine magic channels the power of the gods to do their will, sorcery bends reality to the mage’s will for his own ends. Sorcerors are thus not universally liked.

Sorcerous spells are recorded in grimoires, which the mage studies. His Sorcery skills (one per grimoire) reflect this, and are the skills used to cast such spells. His Manipulation skill allows him to buff the spell’s basic effects, giving it greater range or duration, more damage, and so on, or to combine it with another spell. He never rolls against Manipulation; each 10% of its rating allows him to buff one aspect of the spell, but also increases the number of Magic Points needed to cast it.

Sorcery allows one to enhance or diminish weapon damage, characteristics or a being’s movement; attract, repel or control various beings or creatures; fly; shape substances as one wishes; perceive magic, emotions or intentions; sense things at a distance; heal wounds and characteristics; shapechange; or tap a target’s characteristics, permanently draining them to convert them to magic points for the sorceror’s use.

GUILDS, FACTIONS AND CULTS (9 pages)

To start with, RQ only had cults, and they were my favourite part of the game. Legend now has guilds, magical or martial orders, and factions as well. The game’s assumption is that every adventurer will be part of at least one larger organisation, which provides support to the adventurer (notably access to training) in exchange for help from him (typically, going on quests).

Cults are organisations dedicated to worship of a particular deity or ideal; guilds exist to further a particular craft or profession; magical orders promote sorcery; martial orders are groups of like-minded warriors. Each organisation has five ranks, ranging from level 0 (lay member) to rank 4 (grand master), each with its own requirements – things the adventurer must do for it – and benefits – things it will do for him. Each organisation has specific skills, and possibly spells or heroic abilities, in which it will train members.

I have fond memories of RuneQuest‘s Cult of the Crimson Bat, mostly because the chief benefit for each rank was that you would not be fed to the Bat until all lower-ranking members had already been eaten. But I digress.

Increasing one’s rank in the organisation demands having been a member in good standing for a number of years, knowing its favoured skills at appropriate levels, and possibly dedicating Power to the patron deity.

A number of example organisations are provided. The Cult of the Thunderer (smells like Orlanth to me); the Order of the Black Serpent (evil magicians); and the Guild of Assassins (’nuff said). Organisations are one of the key ways in which the GM shapes his world, by signalling what types of duties and perquisites adventurers should pursue, and what sort of adventures the campaign will focus upon.

HEROIC ABILITIES (7 pages)

These are the superhuman powers that adventurers learn from their patron organisations or other heroes, and use to great effect in adventures. They are bought with hero points earned on adventures, but also require the adventurer to demonstrate his worthiness to the patron, typically by success in a quest. They are powered by Magic Points.

I can summarise them best by saying they allow the adventurer to perform feats out of Chinese martial arts movies; parrying arrows, hitting people so hard they fly metres backwards through the air, resisting damage or disease through sheer Bad-Assery, defying gravity, running along walls, ridiculously accurate missile fire and so forth.

I really like this idea. Each adventurer could have a signature move or three, and I instinctively started to rate favourite heroes from literature or movies in terms of which heroic abilities they had.

GAMESMASTERING LEGEND (12 pages)

This starts by explaining what sort of games Legend suits best. Legend assumes that the game is about character development in terms of skills and relationships with his or her community, and that killing monsters or collecting treasure are at best means to those ends, and at worst – irrelevant. Scenarios are driven by the needs of the adventurer’s family, home village, cult or organisation, which provides the GM with an ongoing source of ready-made adventure hooks.

Another lever the GM has for adjusting the campaign is magic. By mandating which types of magic can be used, and by whom, the flavour of the game is changed. Conan’s Hyboria? Only sorcery allowed, and then only for evil NPCs. Middle-Earth? Divine magic and sorcery, but no common magic. Classic RuneQuest Prax? Divine magic and common magic, and anyone can learn common magic.

Something that was pointed out to me in the 1970s when RQ first emerged, and is still true in Legend: Everything you need to play in, or run, a game is on the character sheet. The rulebook points this out.

There’s the usual advice to the GM on how to write or adapt adventures and campaigns, including how to scale the opposition to be a challenge but not overwhelming. I tend to take that as read in RPGs, since almost all of them have it.

The chapter closes with random tables for weather and encounters, mixed in with travel times and costs.

Given the game’s background assumption that magic items are not found just lying around, I can forgive the lack of a treasure section. If I need treasure, I pick something from the Equipment chapter and stud it with gems. Job done.

What I think ought to be included, though, is some kind of bestiary, even if it only includes a handful of stock human NPCs. Sure, I can whip some up easily enough using the character creation rules and assuming average die rolls, but I shouldn’t have to do that.

CONCLUSIONS

Legend is aimed squarely at the sort of play I like; cinematic, gritty pulp in which adventurers’ skills, cunning and guts are more important than their inventory. In my present circumstances it falls into the "too complicated and time-consuming" bucket for me; Your Mileage May Vary.

I can see myself borrowing a number of the mechanics, such as the tables for generating encounters and the PC’s family, the rules for odd jobs between adventures, and of course the cults, guilds and other types of factions. Given enough time and players, I could see myself using Legend for a game based in MAR Barker’s world of Tekumel, using cults for the religions and clans as a kind of guild.

No Power Points Option

In the last session, we experimented with the No Power Points setting option in Savage Worlds. We like the idea of one less thing to track, but weren’t sure how it would play in a real session. Here’s what we found…

Those with Arcane Backgrounds cast more spells, but lower powered ones, to avoid casting penalties. In particular, multi-shot bolts were not used so much, because more skill dice being rolled means a higher chance that at least one fails. The range of spells in use widened as well, people being more willing to cast buffs like Armour rather than reserving their power for offensive spells as they stay up indefinitely.

It’s relatively easy to Shake yourself by failing a casting, but it’s easy to avoid/recover from so long as you have bennies left. From a GM’s perspective, this increases the benny spend rate, so I may need to reconsider how I balance the flow of bennies; this is definitely a tool you could use to control how nasty the option is. It also makes The Warforged relatively more powerful, because as a Construct he gets +2 to recover from Shaken; so do undead, so Liches are now a little more powerful too in comparison to a plain vanilla spellcaster. I expect this manifests itself as them spending fewer bennies on average over the course of a session.

A number of Edges players have taken, such as Wizard and extra Power Points, are wasted under this option. I’d originally intended to have them partially negate the penalties (each Power Points edge reduces the penalty for one point, penalties are figured on the cost after the Wizard edge is applied), but I think that would remove too much of the risk of failure; so I’m more likely to let them swap those edges out for something that is still useful.

Players were really worried about blowing themselves up with critical failures, but it didn’t happen. I like this aspect of the option, as it echoes one of my favourite parts of WFRP: Wizards blowing themselves up or being carried off by demons when they get a spell badly wrong.

Great Healing (courtesy of the Holy Handkerchief) is much less useful now, as the casting penalty is –5 or –10; the HH provides the power and the power points, but the caster must make a Faith roll to activate it, so this turned into a huge benny drain and after a couple of uses the players abandoned it and using their own healing powers, with much muttering about “magic items are useless in this system”.

That’s how my group rolled. Have you tried this option? How did it go with your players?

Episode 5: Death of a Tyrant, Part 3

This did not go at all as I expected. No change there, then.

I had expected that the group would deduce where the Big Bad was in fairly short order, and then stroll over to sort him out.

They did in fact work out where he was early on, but thrashed around for a long time debating what to do, including convincing themselves there must be secret escape passages somewhere through which they could bug out into the desert again. (After all, that worked so well last time.)

Before they could decide what to do, the Big Bad’s minions turned up in platoon strength to neutralise them. I thought the NPCs grabbing bows and opening fire on the incoming horde would be a good enough clue to do something, but in fact the party continued their debate until the attackers were literally coming in through the windows. They had at least one perfectly good escape route, which they ignored, preferring to stand to and repulse the attackers.

A lengthy and brutal melee ensued. Highlights:

  • The Warforged casting a Fear spell, whose primary effect was to make Gutz throw himself out of the nearest window and fall two stories to the ground.
  • Nessime standing in the centre of the building to give herself the best possible coverage for her Repulse power, having deduced the attackers were supernatural and evil. She killed more of them than anyone else.
  • Athienne being (literally) brained, and only saved because Nessime managed to get the Holy Handkerchief to her in time.
  • Garstrewt using up all the healing potions, none of which worked. They must have been sold a bad batch.
  • The Warforged casting Blast into the ground floor as the attackers broke down the door. He killed more friendlies than all the attackers combined by doing this.
  • Gutz kill-stealing the lone surviving attacker before Athienne could fulfil her vow to do so.

While all this was going on, the only remaining member of the cabal that originally hired them was kidnapped. They are currently still in what’s left of her house, pondering their next move.

Quick Reference

No matter how I resist it, I always find myself making my own GM screen or quick reference sheets for any RPG I run, because I’m never completely happy with anyone else’s sheets. That time has now come for Savage Worlds.

I’m not sharing the sheets themselves, partly because of copyright concerns and partly because I use a brutally simple layout, since I have a habit of printing the same file on various paper sizes and using it on several different electronic devices; tables, bullet points and so forth do not survive such transitions.

Here is what I think should be on these sheets:

  • Explanations of trait rolls and bennies.
  • Combat summary, covering initiative, movement, Fighting, Shooting, damage, Soak rolls, incapacitation and injuries, combat options like ganging up and aiming, and the Fear table.
  • Use of powers – most of this is on the character sheets, but I like to have the backlash rules with me.
  • Setting rules, if any. (Not Multiple Languages, which can be covered on the character sheet – "speaks Common and three others".)
  • NPCs. Stock allies, personalities, reaction tests, and a couple of monstrous abilities for instant monsters.

Earlier in my gaming career, I would have added character creation rules as well, but to be honest you don’t need character creation that often in the course of a campaign, and players can easily use an Experienced Soldier until they get around to creating a PC.

All of this fits on 4 sides of A4, 6 sides of A5, or 15 sides of 9×12 cm virtual paper for my Kindle. I think I’ll try running the next session from my Kindle, just to freak people out.

Review: Beasts & Barbarians Adventures

Here are my thoughts on three GRAmel adventures for their Beasts & Barbarians setting. I would like to go into more detail, but that would potentially spoil the adventures, so capsule reviews only this time.

DEATH OF A TYRANT

44 pages. This consists of a four-part adventure set in the Red Desert, NPC and creature statistics, and background information on the Red Desert and its inhabitants, human and otherwise.

The PCs become embroiled in intrigue in the desert city of Quollaba; their success in their initial assignment leads to unforeseen complications, but with luck and cunning they can emerge alive and wealthy.

My players are currently partway through this one, and enjoying it hugely. My average session is 4 hours long, and I think we will get two or maybe three sessions out of this one.

CITADEL OF THE WINGED GODS

66 pages. This is a scenario in four parts, with NPC and creature stats, and background information on Kyros, its rulers, its problems, its religions, and its famous horses.

As an army moves to crush a rebellious city in eastern Kyros, the PCs learn of a great treasure inside the walls, worth a man’s weight in silver. The treasure is not quite what they expected, but it leads them to the secrets of a lost city, pursued by vile bandits.

Again, I think 2-3 sessions worth of play for my lot here.

THE SKINNER OF SYRANTHIA

21 pages. A shorter adventure, with NPC and creature stats, set in the city of Syranthia.

A visit to a favourite tavern alerts the heroes to a spate of kidnappings and murders. They must investigate, and bring the culprits to justice. In the course of doing so, they will learn about Syranthia’s Great Library and its gladiatorial arena, and uncover a dark secret.

Probably 1-2 sessions in this one, I think.

CONCLUSIONS

These adventures are good at three things; first, capturing the feel of Conanesque swords and sorcery; second, showing how to use chases, co-operative and dramatic tasks in creative new ways; third, setting up “battlemats” made of whatever you have lying around already, such as blast templates.

The scenarios are essentially linear, which is a change for me after the last few years of sandbox play, but it’s working so far.

I’m not a fan of the dark and ink-intensive backgrounds on each page, but fortunately these are a separate layer in the PDF file and can be turned off for reading and printing.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.

Death of a Tyrant–Part 2

Again, I’ll keep this brief and generic to avoid spoilers for anyone who buys the Death of a Tyrant adventure. After wandering around in the desert, completely lost, for a week, the group found themselves back in Quollaba, having gone in a complete circle; and it wasn’t long before their enemies found them.

A friendly NPC did the "Come with me if you want to live" thing, but since the party’s fighters are loaded with Hindrances like Arrogant, Overconfident, Bloodthirsty, and Vow: Never retreat, never back down, they ignored him and waded into the bad guys, who had appeared in platoon strength. The party’s spellcasters made adroit use of area effect spells, especially Fear, to break up the pack, after which their foes were defeated in detail. By the end of it, there were very few bennies left anywhere, and a lot of Wounds; fortunately I had dug out some tokens to use for power points, bennies and wounds – not having to record those on scrap paper really speeds things up.

By the end of session two, the party is holed up with one of their erstwhile patrons, who is effectively under house arrest. I left them to plot their next move.

REFLECTIONS

  • I’m really pleased I started this campaign. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to GM a group face to face.
  • Beast & Barbarians published scenarios stress supporting skills like Tracking and Survival as much as combat skills. My players have so far considered those a waste of points, which is probably my fault; but these adventures should change that.
  • Seeing half a dozen PCs faced off against 30+ Extras and a Wild Card made me realise how hard it would be for me to go back to a system where every opponent had its own hit points to track. That combat took almost an hour to run under Savage Worlds, although I am still a bit rusty as a GM.
  • Running published scenarios for the first time in a while also brought home to me how much time I could save by doing that in future.

ARTWORK – SPOILER WARNING!

I’m not sure how much this gives away, but here are the drawings made during the first session of Death of a Tyrant by Tenchi Montano, who plays Gutz. The female character at center right is Nessime the paladin, played by Tenchi’s wife Giulia; the male figure with a long ponytail is Gutz.

Tyrant01

Artwork © 2012 Tenchi Montano, used with permission.