Review: Scarlet Heroes Beta

Here’s the latest product from Sine Nomine Publications out of Kickstarter.

Kevin Crawford’s idea of a Kickstarter is that he writes the whole book first, then uses the Kickstarter funding to pay for the artwork. By backing the Kickstarter, I get a link to download the beta version of the rules. This is awesome, as it means I can start playing the game before the Kickstarter even funds, and even if it fails (which it won’t, it’s already over-pledged by nearly a factor of three) or he dies before release (heaven forbid, seriously), I still have the game. Respect, Mr Crawford, respect.

But enough of that. Let’s take a look at the game, shall we?

In a Nutshell: Old School RPG for one player, with or without a GM, using Sine Nomine’s Red Tide setting. 129 page PDF.

CONTENTS

Introduction (1 page): This is half introduction to the Red Tide setting, and half explanation of what the game is about.

The world of the Red Tide is one which has been almost entirely overrun by eldritch horror, and the survivors of a dozen cultures are crammed together on a small group of islands, formerly owned by the goblinoid races (who would like them back, thank you very much). This lets you have Norse berserkers and Chinese mandarins adventuring together without stretching the background too much.

The game is for fast play with one player and a GM, or solo gaming; maybe you want to show a non-gamer what it’s about, maybe only one player showed up tonight, maybe you’re stuck in a hotel room with a couple of hours to kill. Like all of SNP’s games, it is about focusing a GM’s limited time on the fun stuff.

Creating Your Hero (12 pages): Old School D&D-style chargen; the usual six attributes in the 3-18 range, a race (the usual Tolkienian suspects, with race as a class as in Moldvay D&D), a class (the basic four), and – wait, what’s this? Traits?

Traits are like Fate aspects, or 13th Age Backgrounds; you have three points to allocate to tags that you make up for your character, such as "City Guard". Skill checks, as you’ll see later, are made on 2d8, and you can add the value of the highest relevant trait to the dice roll. Each time your PC levels up, he or she gets another trait point, which can boost an existing trait or start a new one. The PC’s race and class give bonus trait points, usually in a specific pre-defined trait.

There’s an equipment list with the usual mediaeval items, including armour, weapons, miscellaneous gear, hirelings and services. There’s a set of random chargen tables if your imagination fails you in deciding your race, class, traits, and pre-existing relationships with NPCs. The section closes with a character sheet.

Playing the Game (10 pages): The reader is first warned that these rules look like d20 games you know and love, but are in fact different; then we launch into checks (2d8 + best relevant trait, meet or beat difficulty level to succeed), saving throws (checks which also add your PC’s level), attack rolls (1d20 + modifiers + target armour class, 20+ hits), and damage rolls (which are the most divergent from D&D, and act to make PCs tougher than usual and NPC mooks much more fragile).

Combat rules are also a little different than the older d20 games. Initiative assumes PCs always go first, and only NPCs roll for it. Attacks and damage I’ve mentioned, but not the Fray Die, which only PCs have, and which deals automatic damage to NPCs of lesser level within melee range, regardless of what the PC is doing. Scarlet Heroes PCs are badasses, and as an NPC, you get up close and personal with them at your peril. I rather like that. Clerics also turn undead using the Fray Die, which is interesting but I’d want to play with it for a bit before deciding how good it is.

Heroes may also Defy Death to overcome failed saving throws, certain catastrophe or lack of skill – this basically allows the PC to trade hit points for success.

This chapter also covers healing and non-combat hazards like diseases, travel and encumbrance, ships and ship combat, and levelling up – like the rest of the game this is much simplified when compared to D&D, with heroes getting one experience point per game session, and levelling up every few XP. The default assumption is that most PCs won’t go far beyond 10th level.

The conversion rules explained something that was puzzling me, namely why not use smaller damage dice rather than reading (say) rolls of 2-4 as one point of damage; the reason is that this way you can use any of the existing d20-based adventures or monsters as they are, without converting any stats; the conversion happens in the GM’s head, on the fly. Likewise, if you want to use any Scarlet Heroes material in (say) Labyrinth Lord, you can do that with almost no effort.

This section closes with notes on how to use Scarlet Heroes with more than one PC, and a quick reference sheet.

Red Sorcery (14 pages): Vancian magic is alive and well here; in line with the other rules simplifications, though, clerics and mages have the same spell progression. Your PC can prepare and hold ready a set number of spells of each spell level he has access to, and once cast they’re gone. No mana points here.

The bulk of the chapter is spell listings; 40 clerical spells and 50 magical ones, with thunderously Vancian names such as Crimson Rain of Deliquesence. The book doesn’t just regurgitate the traditional spells, it has what appear to me to be largely  a new set, although I admit to skimming them at this point and may realise they’re familiar after all on a more detailed reading.

This chapter ends with the list of Munificent Patrons, those Kickstarter backers who ponied up the larger pledges. It’s blank in the beta.

The World of the Red Tide (12 pages): History, geography, politics and so forth of the setting described in Red Tide itself, basically the typical gamer’s favourite cultures all squashed together into a small group of islands.

A Bestiary of Foes (16 pages): What it says on the tin; about 60 monster descriptions and statblocks. These include a number of new monsters as well as stock opponents from earlier rules sets and Red Tide. There are encounter tables by terrain type, but encounters are not gated by level; as with SNP’s other works, this is a sandbox world, and you are expected to be smart enough to identify an unwinnable fight and back away from it.

Where this section moves away from standard fare is in the Encounter Twists page; random tables to determine the opposition’s current purpose, attitude towards the hero, and size and condition. For example, one might encounter a group of hobgoblins in a dungeon only to discover that they are repairing a damaged fitting, unwilling to fight unless they have to, and gravely wounded already with -3 Morale. (I would spin that as hobgoblins fresh from a fight with another party who kicked in the door to their lair, which they are now repairing.)

Treasures Beyond Price (12 pages): This begins with a discussion of the various approaches to treasure; basic D&D (use the treasure as written in existing modules), creating your own adventures (guidelines provided) and pulp ("Just give me the Eye of Darkness, I’m only gonna spend that silver on ale and whores anyway" – optional rules provided). We then move on into treasure tables, with 30+ example troves ranging from a peasant family’s savings (a few coins, some cheap clothes and jewelry) through the Shiny-Loving Beast Nest (gold and jewelry) to the Mighty Wizard-Lord (gold, furniture, jewelry and magic items). Further tables allow you to determine that the peasant’s wife has an agate nose ring, or that the Wizard Lord’s throne is fashioned of jewelled bronze. Finally, rules on creating, buying and selling magic items, and the obligatory random tables for them.

Adventures (22 pages): Notes for the GM, first explaining the advantages of working with one PC rather than a party – solo adventures are fast-moving, agile and personal – and the pros and cons of sandbox play as opposed to the (currently) more fashionable story arcs. After that, they move on to whether and why you might use a campaign setting, components of an adventure and how to put them together, and a recap of SNP’s Golden Rule of Preparation: If you don’t need it for the next session, and you’re not having fun making it up, leave it alone and move on. Advice on running adventures is focused on how to explain the minimum-prep modified sandbox approach to your player. There’s a brief section on rewards and advancement.

Where this chapter shines is in Crawford expanding his popular tag system (previously used on various types of locations) to sword and sorcery adventures; there are 20 tags for each of three adventure types, and you can use one or more tags per adventure depending on how complex you want it to be. This is best shown by example; rolling a 5 on 1d6 followed by a 6 on 1d20 tells me I have a dungeon adventure with the tag False Facade; a place of danger which appears to be something else entirely, something innocent and harmless. I’m then presented with a list of possible friends, enemies, things, complications and locations; for example the hero might find a hidden escapee, pursued by the mayor of a secret cannibal village twisted by an evil relic, who only prey on the weak (and thus will leave the PC alone if he leaves them alone), and places including a hidden abattoir and the graves of former inhabitants.

As is common in SNP works, there is also a section of unkeyed maps to use (albeit present in the beta as gaps in the text), commentary on why you might or might not use them, and random tables to help the GM: Names by race and nationality, and quick NPCs. These would integrate well with Red Tide.

Solo Gaming (15 pages): This was the bit I was most interested in, as geography and other factors currently constrain me to solo play. The chapter divides adventures into urban, wilderness and dungeon, with the expectation that your PC will switch from one to another as his story progresses, and the suggestion that the scenarios thus generated could be used for a more normal GM-group session. Each adventure has a threat level, which defaults to that of the PC, but may be higher or lower. This is listed as "T" on later tables – for example one might be assaulted by a trap inflicting Td4 damage, which for a level 6 trip would be 6d4 hits.

There are a few Oracular tables, which function much like those in Mythos but are more concise; they give general yes/no answers, and random adjectives and motivations to shade those answers; distance to things; weather; and NPCs, their reactions and relationships between them. Most of those could be used in any other solo RPG with a little thought.

Each type of adventure then has a few pages set aside to define it, as each involves different events and a different story structure.

Urban adventures revolve around solving crimes or other plots by progressing from scene to scene, overcoming challenges with skill checks and gathering Clues or Victory Points. Intruding into a building or complex may temporarily shift the focus onto a dungeon adventure. Sometimes the PC’s methods are unpopular, generating "Heat" which represents animosity among the locals. Getting them angry enough means you need to flee the city, or deal with their attempts to dispose of you in the next session.

Wilderness adventures are about exploring the unknown and looting its treasures. Your hero wanders across a hex map, generating terrain (unless you have a map already), encounters, and features of interest as they go. Features can generate dungeon adventures.

Dungeon adventures are about exploring ruins or lairs, killing the occupants and taking their stuff. There are rules for generating a dungeon as you go (including occupants, special features and treasure), finding the creature or object you were hired to find, sounding the alarm, and retreating from combat.

Advice on running NPC foes in combat is sparse, essentially limited to "do what makes sense, and if you get stuck roll on the Oracle tables to decide."

…and we close with an index.

FORMAT

Colour cover, two-column black on white text, black and white interior line art, crisp, clear layout. Basic, easy to use, gets the job done.

Note that in the beta version of the game, many of the illustrations are missing, pending Kickstarter funding to pay for them.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I was hoping for more advice on running NPCs in solo combat, since as written the foe’s tactics are limited to what I can dream up. However, I can see that with a wide range of monsters this could easily become a book in its own right, with complex and time-consuming lookups which derail play – and how would it cope with the GM’s own monsters?

I was going to request a supplement for solo adventuring in Stars Without Number, but the day before I posted this, Kevin Crawford announced in his latest Kickstarter update that he would be doing just that – how’s that for customer service? Watch for a review of Mandate Archive: Stellar Heroes as soon as I can get my greasy mitts on a copy.

CONCLUSIONS

In a sense, this is the fully-fledged version of SNP’s earlier Black Streams supplement, Solo Heroes; so if you want to see a bit more detail, download that and read through it.

I was expecting Scarlet Heroes to be a supplement, requiring both Labyrinth Lord and Red Tide to use, but it isn’t and doesn’t. Instead, it’s entirely self-contained, and cleverly written so that converting material to and from D&D retroclones is very easy to do. The rules are simplified and unified, stripping class-and-level gaming down to something very easy to explain and remember, with almost no special cases; what I find especially intriguing is that by switching the variant damage rule on or off, you have something suitable for one PC or many. I didn’t really understand that when reading Solo Heroes.

I keep looking at retroclones and thinking how nice it would be to recapture the feel of gaming as it was in the 1970s, then re-reading the RPGs from that era and remembering why I’ve moved on to more sophisticated (and more coherent) rules. Scarlet Heroes is an intriguing blend of the two approaches; like most SNP products, it takes familiar mechanics, tightens them up into something slicker, then integrates them seamlessly with each other.

Scarlet Heroes assumes a certain level of knowledge for the GM (although not necessarily the player), and specifically that he already understands how Old School d20 games work. That’s probably a safe assumption for anyone who finds that game, or this blog.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. I didn’t expect to be so taken with this, but I feel the urge to kick off a new solo game. Watch for that coming in a couple of weeks to this very blog…

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7 thoughts on “Review: Scarlet Heroes Beta

  1. It was a pleasure to read the review, and I’m glad that the thing looks useful to you. The final version will have another couple pages of play example for the game systems, an additional page of solo adventure example play, and one more page of solo dungeon tools aimed at monsters and inhabitants. Plus a fix for the duplicated treasure table on that page, and the usual batch of typo and error corrections.

  2. Ook Ook! This looks really good – as you know, I’m a big fan of solo game systems. I already own Red Tide, so I’ll be looking out for this. Also, the idea of the SWN one is making me dust off the rulebook again (actually, it’s right to hand as I’m currently running a solo Game in the Hydra Sector using a mix of my own stuff, Mythic and Story Cubes)
    How come you’re on your own geographically? Are you cut off by floodwater atm? The river Stour near to me has flooded but fortunately I’m on a hill above it. My brother’s garden is disappearing though as he lives next to the river.
    Have you thought of playing via e-mail? I GM’d a very successful Game of Corporation from 2009 – 2011 on the Deniable Resources forum (it’s still there – Project: Stormfront). I can get another 1-2 players to join in if you fancy trying PBeM with SWN. It only takes a few minutes every day or so to post.

    • The SWN version has just popped up on RPGNow; review next Wednesday, but the headline is it’s a SWN version of Solo Heroes, intended for one PC and one GM rather than one PC and no GM.

      I’ve escaped the floods so far, I also live on a hill; the geographical element is mostly due to my needing to travel a lot at the moment, largely at weekends, and largely to places without reliable internet access.

      I have thought of playing by email; I played in, and ran, several very successful PBEM campaigns back in the day, but my old PBEM crew has lost interest and the new group isn’t interested to start with. At the moment, spotty internet access and travel-induced mental exhaustion rule it out, but thanks very much for the offer and I may take you up on it later; the current situation probably won’t last more than a couple of years, my gaming life goes through phases like this but it always bounces back eventually… :-)

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