Hex Map Pro and the Dread Sea Dominions

One of the first apps I bought for the iPad was Hex Map Pro, which turns it into a game board (£2.99 from the App Store). You can use the built-in facilities to create a board, which are limited to colouring in squares or hexes; or you can import a picture, rescale it, and overlay a grid on it. Then, the app lets you create and label counters to move around the map. There are no built-in rules, so it isn’t tied to a particular game; and no automation, so it’s easy to work out.

I intended to use it for playing THW games without having to haul out terrain or minis, and you’ll see some examples of that in due course. It took me a while to realise how useful it would be for other things, though; here’s an example screenshot.

DSD_Hex

I loaded up Beasts & Barbarians Golden Edition on the iPad, and took a screenshot of the map, which I saved as a photograph. I cropped off the margins using a free picture editor map, then imported it into Hex Map Pro. I then resized the picture so that it was about 30 hexes tall, which in my version of the Dominions makes one hex about 125 miles (that makes it easy to zoom in to 25 and then 5 mile hexes if I ever want to do that). Finally, I saved it as a new gameboard in HMP, and created one token (the green one labelled “Party”) to show the group’s current location.

One screenshot later, you get the picture above. I like it.

(I remember doing the same thing in the late 1970s with a map, a photocopier and a plastic sheet that had hexagons printed on it. This is a LOT faster and easier.)

Review: B&B Hero Construction Set

I’m not a big fan of cardboard figures, but I was intrigued enough to get the Beasts & Barbarians Hero Construction Set from Okumarts Games; partly because it relates directly to my main current setting, and partly because of the way it uses PDF layers to create variations on the basic figures.

CONTENTS

One sheet of 12 pregenerated figures, and one sheet of 12 customisable figures. In each case, you have one each of Northlander, Amazon, Tricarnian, Valk, Rogue, Ivory Savannah Tribesman, Cairnlander, Gladiator, Lotusmaster, Monk, Sorceror and Red Desert Nomad. The Rogue and Amazon are female, the others male. There are some instructions, adverts and a front cover also, each as separate files.

On the pregenerated sheet, there are three versions of each figure, mostly variations in colour scheme. On the customisable sheet, each figure has three choices for his or her head, torso/arms, and legs. I haven’t tried all the possible variations yet, but with 9 possible versions of each of 12 figures I won’t run out any time soon.

FORMAT

Large, layered PDF file. Like most standee figures, the art is a little cartoony, but you see enough of it before you buy to know what you’re getting. The use of layers is good, especially the ability to turn off text.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I would have liked female versions of some of the other characters, and perhaps a male rogue, but you can get close to those by picking the right set of body parts so that’s a nitpick.

Another nitpick is that I would’ve liked to see a drow-style jet black option for the Tricarnian; but I can see where that would be a bit iffy to print. It took me a while to work out that the Tricarnian is in some sort of martial arts crane stance, which is why his right leg and left hand look a bit strange.

CONCLUSION

If you like standees, these are good ones. When printed out, they look a lot better than I would have expected from viewing them onscreen, probably because they are farther away – the usual thing about figures needing to look good at arms’ length, on a table, rather than right up next to your eyes.

I’m not sure they will tempt me away from my pewter and plastic, but over a hundred different figures for $5 and the cost of printing them is a price point other options can’t match; and the ease of replacing them means I won’t be so bothered if they get dropped, eaten by cats, smashed by small children, etc.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

5150: New Beginnings–Character and Group Creation

I’m in a gaming rut at the moment, and a flurry of real life interruptions has disrupted my regular players, so I decided to get THW’s 5150: New Beginnings and try that out.

I use the Arioniad as a testbed for new rules – that’s part of the reason why there are so many retcons in it – so I open the rules with the idea of using Halfway Station as an orbital city where the action takes place, and converting Arion, Coriander and Dmitri into NB characters for a test run. Like other more recent THW products, NB takes a programmed learning approach to easing you into the game; as you read the book you’re encouraged to create a Star, recruit a group, try out the reaction tests, and so on. So this post, which will take me through character and group creation, is part Arioniad season 3, part review of 5150 NB, and takes me up to about p. 35 of the $20, 176 page PDF.

With 5150, THW has split its sci-fi offering in two; Star Army, which is aimed at squad and platoon-level actions, and New Beginnings, which looks at a small band of desperados. In the designer’s notes, Ed Teixeira says that this decision came from noticing that his customers were split between wargamers and RPG gamers, and wanting to tune the rules for each.

Characters and Group

Let’s start with the PCs. Race (Basic) and gender are obvious. I prefer to play humans, but in NB I or my minions could also have been Grath (REALLY tough thugs), Hishen (little blue-grey slavers and crooks who have a sort of group mind), Razors (fast, terrifying thugs), Xeog (good-looking, power-hungry, blue-skinned), or Zhuh-Zhuh (berserker space apes). Or, I could have made up a new race using the Alien Attributes tables.

Looking at p. 6 I see that as well as Stars and Grunts (roughly equivalent to SW Wild Cards and Extras respectively) there is now a third option, Co-Star, much as in Larger Than Life. In 5150 NB, Co-Stars are midway between the other two; they have a reduced amount of Star Power (which allows them to avoid damage sometimes), Larger Than Life (which means they can’t be killed by inferior opponents) and Cheating Death (which means they can voluntarily lose one Rep – the most important character stat – to avoid death).

I decide Arion is the Star, and Coriander and Dmitri are both Co-Stars. I also notice a new advantage, one I haven’t seen in earlier THW games: Bonus dice. The Star gets as many Bonus Dice as his Rep per encounter, which he can use alongside his usual dice for reaction tests etc. This means Stars can improve their chance of success on a few chosen dice rolls during the game.

A character’s Rep determines his hit probability, morale, and a few other important things. As the Star and my personal avatar in the game, Arion starts with Rep 5, which is pretty good. I decide the Co-Stars should be Rep 4 ( under the recruiting rules on p. 33, Arion can’t recruit anyone with a higher Rep than that).

I can see from p. 8 that I need to pick a Class for each character, which determines the reaction tables it uses, the available Professions, and who can be in the Star’s group. THW games revolve around the reaction tables, and the various races and “character classes” are differentiated by having different ones; so the same dice rolls for a reaction might make different characters under fire duck back, run away or return fire. Rather than min-maxing the reaction tables, I decide to skip forward to the Professions on pp. 13-16, and pick Class based on the Profession I want each character to have.

After flipping backwards and forwards a bit, I decide all three are the LWC class (“Law-abiding Working Class”), which means their basic Motivation (p. 9) is Survival, rather than Duty or Profit. The characters’ Professions and primary skills (more of those later) are: Arion – Pilot (Sav), Coriander – Doctor (Sci), Dmitri – Dealer (Pep). There are no obvious spy or psion classes, so I picked ones that seemed close to how the characters have behaved to date.

Next, attributes. Rather than dice for these, I select them from the tables on pp. 9-11 based on the SW stats. This gives Arion, Exceptional Pilot (Ace) and White Knight (Heroic); Coriander, Charismatic (Attractive); and Dmitri, Smooth (Investigator). I debated whether to give Coriander and Dmitri two attributes like a Star, or one like a Grunt, but since Co-Stars are theoretically promoted from Grunts, I decided on one in the end.

Now I move on to skills. Each character has four skills; Fitness, People, Savvy and Science. One of these has a skill level equal to the character’s Rep, one has Rep-1, and one has Rep-2; others are at level 0. Fitness must be at least 1. This works out very quickly and easily, with all the characters’ skill levels matching half their relevant SW die types.

As usual in THW, you’re encouraged to count the character as armed and armoured with whatever its figure has; this gives Arion and Dmitri a Big Ass Pistol and an ordinary pistol each, and Coriander an assault rifle (what!?). By the time I get to p. 24 I see that everyone can have a Local Comlink, so add those to the pile.

On top of that, there are the “items” rules on pp. 83-85. Pretty much anything is an item, and 5150 takes the view that it’s all about playing the game, so if your character wants a spaceship, just give him a spaceship and move on. You get 3 items per point of the Star’s Rep (15), plus one per game month, plus one for each recruit you did not take when forming your initial group (3 in this case, as a Rep 5 Star could have 5 minions, but I have only taken 2).

That gives Arion 18 items for the group. We’ll have a Long Range Comlink each, the Dolphin as our spaceship, an aircar as a runabout, a dozen spiderbots in the repair swarm, and a godown at the starport as our cover business.

All of this took about an hour, which was probably extended by not being familiar with the rules.

Final Statistics

  • Arion: Rep 5, Pilot (LWC), Exceptional Pilot, White Knight, Fit-3, Pep-0, Sav-5, Sci-4. BAP, pistol, LR Comlink.
  • Coriander: Rep 4, Doctor (LWC), Charismatic, Fit-3, Pep-2, Sav-0, Sci-4. BAP, pistol, LR Comlink.
  • Dmitri: Rep 4, Dealer (LWC), Smooth, Fit-3, Pep-4, Sav-2, Sci-0. Assault rifle, LR Comlink.
  • Group items: Spaceship, aircar, 12 spiderbots, starport godown, 3 x Local Comlink.

Update at +1 hour: I see from p. 34 that each Grunt brings 2 x Rep items to the party, which gives us another 8. We use 3 to buy Armoured Jackets and bank 5 for a rainy day.

Update at +2 days: Yes, well spotted, that should be another 16 items. Blimey, we’re rich. Another 3 used to buy Universal Voice Boxes for translation, and bank another 5 for a total of 10 in the bank. I’m starting to wonder whether characters get too many items, but I always try to play using the Rules As Written for a while before I start messing with them.

Review Thoughts So Far

Character and group creation is simple and straightforward, and it was easy to convert my troupe from SW to 5150. I expect creating a new troupe would be easier, but I’ve become attached to these rascals over the last few years. I’ve noticed before that the simpler character creation is, the higher the mortality rate among new PCs; the simple system suggests I might get through quite a few characters, but let’s see how that goes.

One of my concerns in getting NB was how complex the skill system would be. However, as long as you stick to one Profession it’s very straightforward; only if you train in multiple professions do you need several different types of Savvy or Science.

The 5150 aliens don’t interest me much, but then I invariably play humans in any RPG, so that is probably me rather than the game. I think The Warforged’s player would want to be a Grath.

Equipment – or “items” – are handled with a very broad brush indeed, which suits me just fine.

Overall, I’m delighted with my purchase, as usual when I shop at THW.

PBEM Experience Awards

Now that I have Play-By-EMail players using Savage Worlds and Labyrinth Lord, I need to consider how to award experience.

Points for roleplay or good ideas can follow the usual SW rules, but since SW experience is largely driven by the number of sessions, what constitutes a session?

Fortunately, Larger Than Life and Mythic both work in scenes. In a face to face session I would expect to get through 3-4 scenes, and award each SW character 2 XP per session on average; so, one experience point per two scenes is about right, awarded about every 4 scenes.

For LL characters, I can use the D&D 3.5 advice – level up after 13.33 encounters (i.e., scenes) on average, which gives them almost exactly 7.5% of the experience needed for the next level after each scene. Come to think of it, I will round that up to 10%, both to make the calculation easier and because, given how slow PBEM play is anyway, the PCs need a little help – at my usual average of one scene every 1-2 weeks, it will take PCs about 3 months to level up.

Note that I won’t count LTL travel scenes unless there is an event or encounter of some kind, as at the table I would represent them as something like "you travel for days across the flat, dusty landscape, always alert for Valk outriders, but fortunately you don’t meet any".

Job done. And I can also use this for my solo PCs – Arion has been adventuring for years without a single experience point to his name, poor fellow…

Review: The Pacts of the Wise

Kevin Crawford has been busy again. I’m at least four products behind on my obsessive quest to collect all of Sine Nomine’s output. We can’t have that now, can we?

The Pacts of the Wise is a free 10-page web supplement for The Crimson Pandect (also on my wish list), which is the magical expansion for SNP’s line of Labyrinth Lord goodies, following Red Tide (campaign setting) and An Echo Resounding (domain-level play).

CONTENT

Cover, introduction, six example pacts (each illustrated with the symbol of the relevant entity), one page of OGL, one page advert for an adventure written by KC for the Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG (shiny!).

Essentially, a magic-user or elf (race as a class is alive and well in Labyrinth Lord) can make a pact with an entity – not yer Elder-Gods-Crawlin’-Chaos type of entity; something a bit less dangerous, but still powerful enough to do useful favours. In exchange, the entity requires rituals, sacrifices, and/or abiding by certain taboos.

The favours are not overly powerful on the face of it; I hesitate only because the cunning of players knows no bounds, and something that looks innocent enough to me might become a tool of global destruction or domination in the hands of (say) Garstrewt, or The Warforged.

Each entity gets a page to itself, with details of how to make and break pacts with it, a picture of its symbol, a new item, a couple of plot seeds, and details of what the entity does to the wizard if he displeases it.

FORMAT

The usual SNP layout; printer-friendly, content-rich, and with high information density. This is what I prefer, personally; but I am well-known for placing content above format.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I got nothin’. Move along, nothing to see here.

CONCLUSIONS

Cracking stuff as usual, easily introduced into any other fantasy game setting. I think I shall use the scenario seeds in my Beasts & Barbarians game as well, the Lovecraft/Howard feel of them would fit right in.

Rating: 5 out of 5 (which translates as "Can’t wait to use this stuff!" – in fact, I’ve already started).

The Chalice of Tishab: Jalizar, March 2510

Here are the first couple of scenes of this PBEM scenario, run in the Beasts & Barbarians city of Jalizar, but using Labyrinth Lord, Red Tide and Mythic instead of Savage Worlds. Compare and contrast with the adventure Gratitude of Princes, occurring simultaneously in Jalizar, but using Savage Worlds and Larger Than Life. Because I can.

I wanted to show how I set these two zero-prep PBEM games up, and how the first couple of scenes went, as examples of what can be done with my toolkit; having done that, I’ll let them fade into the background, and focus on face to face and solo play. I’ll give you summary updates as and when there is a lull in the fighting in the other games; we have a rash of weddings and wedding anniversaries coming up over the next few months, so it should only be a few weeks until that happens.

SCENE 1

Our hero is Stan, 1st level human thief. Stan’s first goal is to get some money, his second objective is to engage a stout retainer to act as a meat shield, as he is concerned about only having 3 hit points.

The first is easy, or relatively so; Grandfather Yusheng does not let hands stay idle long, for the hands must gather money to feed the mouths, yes? He summons Stan to his office, which smells of incense vainly trying to cover the odour of fish.

“Stanislas,” says the Grandfather after the usual pleasantries, “It is time for you to begin earning money for the Society. One hand washes the other, yes?” Stan nods.

“Well then, I want you to recover something for me. A common thief, not someone associated with our Society, has stolen a precious item from a lady under our protection. This is not to be tolerated. You will recover the object, and ensure that Stern Master Jing is able to teach this ruffian respect for us.”

Grandfather Yusheng goes on to explain that the object is a cup of mottled peach and lavender jade; that its rightful owner is the lady Aspasia, a wealthy matron, of a certain age yet still lovely; and that she is most insistent it should be recovered immediately.

This is the Chalice of Tishab, from Pacts of the Wise, of which more shortly.

“Your test of initiation into the Society begins,” the Grandfather continues. “Now: What else do you need, or need to know? This answer, too, is part of the test.”

Stan politely enquires of Grandfather Yusheng if it is known where the miscreant can be found.  Also, do we know if the item has left his possession yet?  Is he associated with another organisation?  (i.e., is Stan in trouble if he stiffs him?)  How does Stan identify him?

At this point, I pull out Mythic and turn to the Fate Chart, which I use to answer Stan’s questions. Note a key principle of zero-prep play here; the player is doing the work of generating the scenario. This also ensures that play develops in a flow that seems (a) logical and (b) congruent with the player’s expectations.

Does Yusheng know where the thief is (I have no preconceived ideas, so I set the Odds row to 50/50, and cross-reference it with the default Chaos Factor of 5)? I make a percentile die roll, 23, and looking up the intersection of the column and row I’ve selected on the Fate Chart, I see that 23% is a “yes”.

Does the thief still have the item (A Near Sure Thing)? 48% – yes.

Is the thief associated with another organisation (No Way)? 47% – no.

How does Stan identify the thief? Hmm. Logically, to know where he is, Yusheng must know who he is. I don’t, and don’t need to, yet.

Does Yusheng know who he is because in his ignorance he has approached a fence associated with the Fish Heads (50/50)? 04% – exceptional yes. Using the NPC tables in Red Tide I determine that this person is called Liu and is always snuffling. OK then, Frozen Liu, known for the unsafe brazier which always glows at his feet, and his continuous feeling of being cold.

None of these percentile rolls came up doubles, so there is no random event. This is the only rule of Mythic that I keep forgetting, so I mention it here mostly to remind myself. I think it should be mentioned in a footnote of the Fate Chart, for vague folks like myself. But I digress.

“Good,” says Grandfather Yusheng. “I do not know where the thief is now, but at dusk he will be at Frozen Liu’s pawnshop; in his ignorance, this fellow approached a pawnbroker associated with our Society to sell the cup. Truly, the gods favoured us this day. So, you can tell that the thief is not himself associated with any of the organisations we know about, or he would have gone elsewhere; and also that he still has the cup, or he would not need to sell it. Frozen Liu can point him out to you when he enters.”

I wondered whether pawnshops would be anachronistic, so paused for a quick Google, and discovered that pawnbroking as a business goes back at least 3,000 years, and most British law relating to them is based on Roman jurisprudence. Who knew?

“Will that be all?” Yusheng’s poker face, and the clouds of foul-smelling smoke from his incense burner, mean Stan cannot tell whether he expects more questions or not.

I update the Chaos Factor, which stays at 5 as Stan is no more or less in control of events than before; the Character List, which now has the four basic NPCs from before, Lady Aspasia, Frozen Liu and the as-yet-unnamed thief; and the Plot Thread list, which now has “Recover the Chalice of Tishab” on it.

SCENE 2

Stan makes his way to Frozen Liu’s pawnbroker emporium, where he finds Liu snuffling (as always) and huddled around a burning brazier, muttering to himself about how cold he is, and how expensive fuel is. Stan introduces himself, and explains the player’s plan.

“If this person leaves with the cup, we might not get it back, and if I don’t trap him in the shop he can flee – and I run the risk of losing him. So, honourable Liu, I would ask you to buy the item.”

“Whaaaaaat?” asks Liu, aghast at the thought of paying for the chalice and then having Grandfather Yusheng relieve him of it.

“Calm yourself, Father,” Stan continues, before the expected explosion can occur. “Once you have the cup, I will meet this fellow inside the doorway and pick his pocket. We shall get the cup back for its owner, and get your money back for you.” Or, he thinks to himself, I die gloriously trying to stop the thief when it all goes horribly wrong. Either way, he is determined not to let Grandfather Yusheng down.

I begin by rolling 1d10 vs the Chaos Factor. I get a 6; since this is more than the Chaos Factor, the scene plays out as expected, rather than becoming an Altered or Interrupted scene.

Does the thief arrive at the pawnshop as expected (Very Likely)? 97% – Exceptional No. I make a mental note to increase the Chaos Factor at the end of the scene, as Stan is now losing control.

Does someone else come instead (50/50)? 17% – Yes. Oho, a new NPC.

Is it a friend of the thief (50/50)? 04%, Extreme Yes. Hmm. Why send someone else?

Is the thief expecting trouble (Very Likely)? 31% – Yes.

Did he send a tougher friend to make the exchange? A thug maybe? (Likely) 96% – Extreme No.

A wizard, then? (Unlikely; how would he know one?) 46% – No. Here you see one possible down side of Mythic; you can flounder around for some time before you get to the next answer.

How about one of Aspasia’s maids (50/50)? 71%. I’m getting bored now, so I use GM Fiat to overrule this. Yes, it’s a maid. She is attractive, because this is pulp, and in pulp any new female character is either (a) good looking or (b) hideous; I think this must be the thief’s girlfriend, so therefore cute, and they plan to use the proceeds of the sale to escape together. The thief knows that by now he is a hunted man, but hopes the girl may not yet be a known accomplice.

Dusk comes and goes, and Stan waits in vain for Frozen Liu to tip him the wink about his target entering. Stan amuses himself by memorising, as far as he can, who enters, what they drop off, and how much Liu offers in exchange. You never know when that will come in handy.

It comes as a surprise to both Liu and Stan when an olive-skinned young woman enters in a cloak, looking over her shoulder in a way that catches Stan’s eye – partly the normal reaction of a young man to a pretty girl, and partly the reaction of a trained thief to someone who thinks they might be being followed. He catches a glimpse of a silver slave collar, a plain dress under a dark green cloak, a smooth, symmetrical face with full lips and flashing brown eyes, and shoulder-length, curly black hair.

The shop is deserted, apart from the three of them. The girl approaches the counter, and pulls an object from inside her cloak; it is the chalice.

“Our mutual friend is indisposed, but he told me you’d be interested in this cup,” she says. Liu appraises it closely.

“It is unlike any I have seen before,” he muses. “Well-made. No maker’s marks. Heavy jade. Hmm. How much do you want for it?”

I look up the equipment list on p.16 of Labyrinth Lord and decide it is equivalent to a vial, worth about one gold piece, if you don’t know what it does.

Do the thief and his girl know the chalice is more than it seems (A Sure Thing)? Yes.

The girl takes a breath and squares her shoulders, obviously screwing up her courage. “A hundred gold,” she says, firmly.

“Girl,” Liu laughs out loud, “I grant you it’s well made, but it’s just a cup. I’ll give you a silver for it.” Stan mentally pegs this as about 10% of what a new one would cost, and decides that Liu is expecting to haggle, and would eventually pay perhaps three silver. The girl’s face falls.

Does she run out in tears (50/50)? 66%, no, and because I rolled doubles, a random event. Oh goody. Now I pull out the event tables, and roll 47 for the Action, and 74 for the Subject; Travel and Liberty. This fits nicely with what I think she needs the money for, but I’ve already decided that, so I think instead she’ll drop a clue for Stan.

“But… but we… I need that money. We have to get away. And I know it’s worth more, a lot more, Lady Aspasia keeps it locked up all the time.” Liu snorts.

“What you need it for is not my concern. What the Lady does with it doesn’t matter. Two silver; no more.” The girl haggles in a spirited manner, but Liu won’t  budge.

At length, she storms out, calling over her shoulder: “May the worms eat your eyes, you miserable miser!”

End of scene 2. I update the Chaos Factor to 6, add the girl to the NPC list, and leave the plot thread list alone because I don’t think a new thread has emerged. All of this took longer to write up than it took to play.

Stan is still lurking by the doorway, affecting interest in a moth-eaten quiver. What next, I wonder?

Advances and Levels

Now that I’m running the Dread Sea Dominions for a player under Labyrinth Lord, I need a fast, furious and fun way to convert NPCs from SW to LL. I think the easiest way to do this is to count the number of advances it would take a stock Beasts & Barbarians character to get from a beginning character to where he is now, add one (because he would be first level before having any advances), and call that his level under LL.

For the range of levels I’m interested in, that would roughly match the Pinnacle d20 Conversion Guide, but be less work.

As an example, let’s take Priest Prince Baaltasar, demonologist of this parish. To save myself time, I use the statblock for a standard Priest Prince from B&B Golden Edition pp. 185-186 for this NPC. Looking at those statistics, I can see he has:

  • 8 points in attributes; less 5 for a beginning character is 3 advances.
  • 22 points in skills; less 15 for a beginning character is 7 advances.
  • 6 edges. Less the free one for being human, and two for hindrances, leaves 3 advances.

Baaltasar has thus taken 13 advances to get where he is today; add one for being first level at 0 advances, and we have a 14th level wizard. I just have to select some spells to match the ones the archetype has listed, and I’m done; but that isn’t something one does where the players might see…