Review: City Deck and Risks & Rewards Deck

“Bob loses saving throw vs. shiny with a penalty of -5. Bob takes 2d8 damage to the credit card.” – Charles Stross, The Fuller Memorandum

OK, now I’m going to break my rule about only buying stuff on my list…

You may have noticed the absence of Captain Flack and his band of ragged zombie hunters recently. Apart from assorted real-life distractions, I’m going through a phase of not wanting to set up the table with figures or even Hex Map Pro with tokens. That ruled out All Things Zombie until recently, when I remembered Ed Teixeira has an app for that; the City Deck, originally for ATZ but now also used with 5150 and other THW games.

And since the ATZ Risks & Rewards Deck was on offer, I threw that in the cart as well, since the biggest flow-breaker for me is pausing the game while I work out what is in the building I just entered.

In a Nutshell: Card decks for All Things Zombie and other THW games; the City Deck lets you set up random city blocks for a game without laying out terrain, while the Risks & Rewards deck tells you what’s inside each one.

FORMAT AND CONTENTS

As with maps, it’s hard to separate the two with these products. Each deck has 54 cards, and a short rules sheet explaining how to use them. No pictures today ‘cos I’m just too tired, you’ll see them in use presently.

City Deck

In the City Deck, each card has a picture of a building, with entrances marked, and annotations showing the Encounter Rating of the building by time of day, how many floors it has, where the ATM is (if it has one), and the building’s name and type.

In play, you lay out 16 cards face down to form an intersection, and turn them over to reveal them when the player group moves into an adjacent zone. The ATZ movement rules are abstracted so that figures move one card length ("movement zone") per turn, two if fast moving; other than that, normal rules apply.

The thing which had not occurred to me until I read the back of the box is that I could lay out fewer cards to simulate a suburban (say, 8 cards) or rural environment (say, one or two). D’oh!

Risks & Rewards Deck

The Risks & Rewards Deck replaces rolling dice and table lookups for encounters. When you enter a building, you draw a card and read the data for the type of area you’re exploring – urban, suburban or rural.

The card will tell you how many zombies or NPCs you’ve found, the Rep and weapon for the first NPC in that group, and what loot you’ll find if you dispose of the occupants. If you find more than one NPC, you draw additional cards for their stats, but you don’t get more loot.

The deck also includes some new items – baseball bat, bow, crossbow, grenade, machete, SAW and scope – and some special NPC encounters: Carolee the THW Girl (sadly no longer with us in the real world), vampires and casters (from the High Rise to Hell supplement, which is on my list) – no stats for those in the deck, so you could either ignore them or use the stats from another THW game, say Larger Than Life or Warrior Heroes.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I’d love to see something similar to the City Deck for rural and suburban areas too. I’d also be interested in Risk & Reward decks for other THW games, in effect pre-generated PEFs.

Although the postage costs from the USA were nowhere near as bad as I expected, a PDF version I could print and laminate myself would be welcome. I would’ve bought these when they first came out if it were not for the perceived postage costs, or indeed if I had realised they wouldn’t be as bad as I expected.

CONCLUSIONS

The Risks & Rewards Deck is mostly a tool to speed up the game, and nothing you couldn’t work up yourself with a few hours’ effort and some dice. It’s a convenience, albeit one I’m happy to pay for. The UK minimum wage is currently something like £6.31 per hour, or just over $10; it would definitely take me more than a couple of hours to generate 50+ encounters for each area type, and I’d rather use that time playing.

The City Deck is more innovative, in that it replaces terrain, allows you to compress a standard ATZ table down to about 18" on a side, and can be used in any of THW’s modern or SF games.

In both cases, the rules are simple enough to be ported to other games very easily. I expect they’ll see use with Savage Worlds as well at some point, and I think it would be possible to reskin them for a fantasy setting without too much work. I’m already thinking about how I could do a suburban or rural deck, but actually saying “This quarter of the board is wooded,” would be enough. I just need a few sheets of paper to scribble on, maybe with a card-sized grid to break it up into movement zones. I bet I could do a dungeon generator based on the rules as well.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. I will definitely use these. Just as soon as there is a gap between work, driving and sleeping.

Telrax the Indomitable, Episode 1

Today, we bring you an example/review of Scarlet Heroes solo play, featuring Telrax the Indomitable. This may or may not become a regular feature. I have largely suppressed my narrative urges, the better to show you the rules at work.

CHARACTER GENERATION

First I need a character. My focus at the moment is understanding how the solo rules work, so I take the simplest race and class – human fighter – to avoid distractions. SNP is unusually lenient here, in that rather than "roll 3d6 and you’re stuck with it", Scarlet Heroes PCs use the 4d6-drop-lowest-and-rearrange approach, with at least a 16 in the prime requisite guaranteed. I roll 16, 16, 13, 12, 11, 8, which I think will be good enough, and rearrange them as Str 16 (+2), Dex 12 (+0), Con 16 (+2), Int 13 (+1), Wis 8 (-1), Cha 11 (+0) – Telrax is a big, beefy lad, with a certain low cunning, but prone to impulsive decisions; a perfect fighter.

Page 8 tells me he can use any armour or weapons, begins with 8 hit points and gains +4 HP per level, begins with a +1 attack bonus and gains +1 per level, and his Fray Die is 1d8.

Telrax gets three Trait points, plus two for being human. I allocate these as Barbarian Warrior +3 and City Guard +2. I picture him wandering into some city as a youth much like Conan, but choosing the side of law rather than becoming a petty thief. He has now grown bored with taking orders and sets out to seek his fortune.

A roll of 15 grants him 150 gp to spend on equipment; I take a one-handed weapon (1d8, probably a sword) for 15 gp, a small weapon (let’s say a dagger, 1d4, 2 gp), chainmail (70 gp) and shield (5 gp) which together give him AC4, and decide to begin with an urban adventure (so the shops are handy) and figure out what else he needs later on, so as to start playing immediately. Total expenditure 92 gp, leaving him with 58 gp in cash.

Where is Telrax from? What city is he in? It doesn’t matter at this stage. Let’s see how the rules play before I commit myself to any of that.

SETUP

I now turn to p. 116 and points west, and the urban solo adventure rules, and begin by rolling 1d8 to generate a plot. A score of 1 (assassination) tells me that I should pick either the antagonist or the target as my initial contact, and I will only learn about the other one after a successful investigation scene. I set Victory Points both for Telrax and the antagonist to zero (first one to 10 wins). Hmm. This early in the game I have no idea which person Telrax would care more about, so I decide to work one out first and then decide which they are.

Flipping back to page 114, I decide whether this person is an assassin or a victim, they’re most likely to be in the Elite and Noble column of the NPCs table. A couple of dice rolls tell me that the NPC is in fact a Famed Courtesan who Telrax owes a favour. She’s Shou Blooded, hard of hearing, lazy, and her immediate purpose is to destroy the evidence of something. That sounds more like a victim than an assassin; we’ll figure out what’s going on later. I set the Threat Level to 1, as that is Telrax’s level. I need a name for the Famed Courtesan; the NPC names tables don’t have any for the Shou Blooded, so arbitrarily I pick Yanmei from the Imperial name tables – obviously she has a professional name, and prefers not to use her real one. (I could have cracked open my copy of Red Tide and taken a Shou name from there, but inertia overcame me.)

SCENE 1

Telrax hasn’t got a Clue yet, so can’t pick an action scene; he can choose either an investigation or a conflict scene, so in time-honoured pulp tradition we begin with a conflict. Rather than roll for this, I select "Waylay a minion of the foe. Face a fight instead of a check."

Clearly, Telrax has found the courtesan trying to dispose of some evidence while being ambushed; I expect he knows her from his time in the City Guard, although since she is a Famed Courtesan he is probably not a former patron.

Moving on to the tables on page 119, a few more dice rolls tell me that this is happening in or near a sewer passage (probably where the evidence is going), that the opposition are 1d4+T Rabble assassins (OK, that figures) – a die roll gives me three of them, and I can see their stats at the bottom of the page; HD 1, AC 9, +1 to hit, 1d4 damage, morale 8, skill +1, move 30′.

We’ll deal with the fight in a moment, but meanwhile, what is this evidence? I decide to roll up a random object on the tables on p. 81. The most interesting option is Jewelry, so I roll some more dice and get a bloodstone amulet, worth 500 gp.

Condensed Narrative Part 1

Telrax is walking through the slums when he spies Yanmei, a courtesan of his acquaintance, hiding a packet in a nearby sewer entrance. Not a very good hiding place, but then, Yanmei is not a fan of hard work. Nor is she especially alert, and she fails to detect the three ruffians approaching her stealthily from behind. However, Telrax owes her, and this looks like a good chance to repay the favour.

The Fight

This being Scarlet Heroes and Telrax a PC, he goes first. Everyone else rolls 1d8 plus Dex modifier (which I’ll call +0 all round to save time) and acts in descending order; that gives us Ruffians #1 and #2 (1), Yanmei (2), and finally Ruffian #3 (5).

Let’s start with the Fray Die, which for Telrax is 1d8. He rolls 4, which signifies one point of damage; since the thugs’ hit dice are less than or equal to his level, he deducts that damage point directly from Ruffian #1′s hit dice (not hit points), removing him from play.

Attacking #2, Telrax rolls 13 on 1d20, then adds +2 for his Strength modifier, +1 for his attack bonus, and +9 for the target’s AC – a total of 25, which as it is at least 20, hits the target. He rolls 1d8 for damage and gets a 5, inflicting one point of damage; this is deducted directly from the target’s hit dice and fells him.

The foes now face a morale check for their losses (p. 18) and roll 2d6 vs their Morale of 8; they roll a 6 and continue – but must now take a second check for losing half their number or more. They roll an 8, and not only carry on, but because they have passed two morale checks will fight to the death.

Yanmei draws a dagger and stabs at the third and final assailant; she rolls 8, plus his AC of 9, plus no bonuses, for a 17 – miss. Ruffian #3 now swings at her, rolling a 3, plus 9 for her AC, plus one for his attack bonus; total 13, also a miss.

It’s a new turn, so initiative again; both NPCs roll a 2, so they will act simultaneously, and Telrax always goes first. The Fray Die comes up 1, inflicting no damage; he rolls 15 to hit, and I can tell that will hit without adding it up. He rolls 7 for damage, which does two points of damage directly to the thug’s hit dice, killing him outright. (Note that had there been another thug left, the second damage point would have got him too.)

Telrax gets a Victory Point for prevailing in this scene (p. 116), and would deduct one from his enemy’s total for winning a conflict, but the as-yet unnamed foe is still on zero VP. He also gets one XP for completing the session, having accomplished something heroic (rescuing a damsel in distress).

Condensed Narrative Part 2

Just as Yanmei fails to notice the ruffians, they fail to notice Telrax coming up behind them until he kicks one of them into the sewer mouth. While the scream and splash are still echoing, Telrax follows up with a savage thrust into the back of the second thug, ending him. Yanmei draws a dagger from somewhere in her diaphanous robes, and she and the surviving thug trade ineffective stabs until Telrax slips past his guard and drops him with a mighty slash.

"Hello, Yanmei," Telrax grins, reaching into the sewer mouth and retrieving a pouch. Emptying it onto his palm, he notices a small bloodstone amulet.

"What have we here? There’s a story behind this, I’ll wager. Do you want to talk about it?"

"Not here," Yanmei replies, looking around her warily. "Follow me, I will explain…"

Pausing only to roll the two dead bodies into the sewer, Telrax obeys.

CONCLUSIONS

Well, that was fun, fast, and easy to run; the initial character generation and set up took about half an hour, and scene 1 just over ten minutes – I expect both would speed up with practice. I was able to run the actual scene with only the quick reference rules on p. 25 and the NPC stats.

The Fray Die is vicious against low-level combatants; between that and his combat adds, Telrax can be pretty certain of incapacitating two mooks per turn. I rather like that, very Conanesque.

It doesn’t take much story to hook me, so you can probably expect further episodes of the adventures of Telrax later. Meanwhile, up next: More Dark Nebula…

Review: Stellar Heroes

Good Lord, Mandate Archive: Stellar Heroes is out already… as promised, a review as soon as I got my hands on it.

In a Nutshell: Stars Without Number supplement for running adventures with one PC and a GM. 7 page PDF, free to download from RPGNow or the Sine Nomine website.

CONTENTS

This Mandate Archive is split into three parts.

First, there is a one-page explanation of what the supplement is for (running Stars Without Number adventures for one or two PCs), and how that differs from normal play (since the group is smaller, consensus is reached much more quickly, so stories are faster-moving).

The second part modifies SWN’s rules for a single PC, who has fewer hit points and a narrower range of skills than a full party. The changes are largely common to Solo Heroes and Scarlet Heroes from the same publisher, both of which cover the same ground for fantasy. To summarise:

  • The PC always wins initiative.
  • Damage and healing dice are read differently, making PCs tougher and NPCs much more fragile, but without changing the scenario or characters.
  • The Fray Die lets the PC roll damage each turn against any NPC in range, even if he is doing something else that round.
  • Defying Death essentially allows the PC to trade hit points for success in a check they would not otherwise make.
  • Lone heroes gain skill points at twice the normal rate when levelling up.

This part closes with a half-page detailed example of how the rules changes work in play.

The third part is a short adventure for a single 1st level hero, pitting him or her against a group of terrorists threatening to crash an orbital station into a surface city. It’s a 10-location dungeon crawl in space, with statblocks for relevant NPCs. Can you say Die Hard? I knew you could…

FORMAT

Black on gold front cover, full colour back cover advertising Scarlet Heroes, and in between, five pages of black on white two-column text in the usual crisp, effective layout.

CONCLUSION

This supplement does what it sets out to do, and does it well; specifically, it applies a handful of rules tweaks to SWN which allows a single PC to survive, and successfully complete, an adventure written for a full-sized group, without rewriting the adventure or the character sheets.

However, what I’m really looking for is a science fiction version of Scarlet Heroes – rules for GM-less SF with a built in setting. I’m hopeful that just as Solo Heroes led to Scarlet Heroes, so Stellar Heroes will lead to something bigger.

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…

Plug for Scarlet Heroes

The Station’s sensors indicate that Sine Nomine Publications is busy again, this time on Scarlet Heroes, an Old School RPG for very small player groups.

I’ve said before that I think there’s something useful for the GM in anything Kevin Crawford writes, so I’ve stuck a few bucks in. If solo or one-on-one adventure in his Red Tide setting intrigues you, go pledge, and thus encourage him to write more of these.

We now return you to your scheduled programming.

Savage Scoutships

The scoutship is a venerable SF stereotype; the Classic Traveller Type S, Jack Vance’s Type 9B Locator, the craft flown by Eric Frank Russell’s scouts, the Runabouts from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and so forth. If there’s a ship I know well, this is it. So it’s a good place to start from in exploring ship design. Let’s try the Type S under the SF Companion and High-Space.

SFC SCOUTSHIP

The scoutship needs to be Small, so that it can be operated by one person. That gives a base cost of $2M and 20 available Mod slots, which I’ll use up as follows:

  • Atmospheric: 3 Mods, $300K.
  • Crew Space x 2: 2 Mods, $200K. Allows for 8 crew members.
  • FTL Drive: 3 Mods, $12M.
  • Garage/Hangar: 4 Mods, $1M. Allows for one vehicle up to size 8. (Hmm. In the Rules As Written, that could be another scoutship, which in turn could have a garage with another scoutship…)

The final statblock is:

Small Starship: Acc/TS 50/700, Climb 3, Toughness 20 (5), Crew 1, Cost $15.5M.

Remaining Mods: 8 (about 27 cubic metres, or just under 2 displacement tons, Traveller-style).

Notes: Atmospheric, 2 x Crew Space, FTL Drive, Garage/Hangar.

Weapons: None.

HIGH-SPACE SCOUTSHIP

I’m using version 1-1 of the High-Space Fleet Manual for this. It should be capable of being owned by a single Novice PC, who would have one Ship Acquisition Point, giving the ship 3 points of Traits and 3 free Edges.

The initial attributes are Manoeuvre d4, Computer d4, FTL d4, Displacement d4 and Quality d4. I select the Explorer design edge (which doesn’t count against the basic three from AP), gaining +1 FTL die-type and +1 Pace, then go back and allocate the three Trait points to Manoeuvre, Displacement, and Quality, boosting them to d6 each. The Explorer design edge also gives it 2 payloads per displacement (12 total) and one hardpoint per displacement (6 total).

I browse through the Hindrances, but none of them seem appropriate, so move on to Edges, and select:

  • Luggage (1 payload).
  • Guest Accommodation (1 payload). This allows the ship to carry its displacement (6) in passengers. High-Space is silent on accomodation for crew members, but the table on p. 7 implies that you could have up to 4 Novice PCs pooling their points to get this ship, so since this edge is specifically for non-crew accommodation, I reckon the ship must have crew quarters for four people.

I can’t give it an air/raft hangar without boosting the Displacement to d8, so we’ll skip that. Life pods don’t feel right as an alternative.

Pace is Manoeuvre plus Quality plus one, so 9. Toughness is half the sum of Displacement and Quality, so 6. The final statblock is:

Attributes: Manoeuvre d6, Computer d4, FTL d6, Displacement d6 and Quality d6.

Pace: 9. Toughness: 6.

Edges: Explorer; Luggage, Guest Accommodation. One edge and 10 payload held in reserve for later use.

Hindrances: None.

Weapons: None.

COMPARISON AND CONCLUSIONS

The SFC ship looks like a vehicle, the High-Space one looks like a character. They both have quite a bit of room for later customisation as the PC crew advance or get richer, and either is well within the reach of a group of Novice PCs – High-Space handles that with Acquisition Points, the Companion by recommending the group should start with a Medium ship, an FTL Drive, and $2M of other Mods.

The SFC ship was definitely faster and easier to do, because the design sequence is more linear and less ambiguous; but the High-Space one was more fun.

Review: SFC vs High Space vs SF Toolkits

“Hey! Are we playing horseshoes, honey? No, I don’t think we are.
You’re close! (Close!) But no cigar!”
- Weird Al Yankovic, Close But No Cigar

This one’s for Cloud Divider, who asked how the SFC stacks up against High-Space and the old SF Toolkits… A bit like this, CD; as you can see I got carried away, and wound up with something too big for a comment.

SFC VS HIGH-SPACE

While both of these focus on the space opera subgenre of science fiction, they’re looking at different versions of it.

The Sci Fi Companion emulates the kind of space opera written in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It’s good for campaigns with the look and feel of Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League or Terran Empire, E C Tubb’s Dumarest saga, H Beam Piper’s Future History, Frank Herbert’s Dune series; movies like Star Wars; TV shows like Battlestar Galactica; games like Traveller, Star Frontiers, BattleTech. This is SF as Westerns-with-rayguns, and I’d say it’s closer to the original Star Wars movies than anything else in fiction.

High-Space mimics the sort of space opera written from the late 1980s onwards, by authors like Iain Banks, Alastair Reynolds, or Neal Asher; or games like Halo or Mass Effect. I can’t think of any movies or TV shows in this subgenre, but no doubt they exist. Transhumanism is central to the setting, with characters routinely being clones, cyborgs, AI software in robot bodies, sentient starships and what have you. For me, it resonates most with the videogame Mass Effect.

Mechanically, the main differences are these:

  • The SFC doesn’t add much as far as character creation goes; a couple of Knowledge skills, a handful of new Edges and Hindrances, and off you go. High-Space takes SW character generation and overlays careers and cultures, which for the most part give you a little character backstory and a couple of mandatory skills.
  • The SFC gives you a point-buy alien builder for making your own races. High-Space treats races as trappings for one of a half-a-dozen racial archetypes.
  • High-Space is set in a post-scarcity economy; the gear PCs have depends on their Rank rather than their available cash.
  • The SFC has a wider range of gear, especially weapons, but High-Space has a stronger focus on computers and hacking.
  • High-Space essentially treats starships as characters; in SFC, they’re just another type of vehicle. However, the rules in SFC are much easier for me to understand; I would love to use the High-Space rules as a plug-in (which incidentally they are designed for) but I found too many unanswered questions and violations of the laws of physics. Yes, I could house-rule around those, but I pay publishers for this stuff so that I don’t have to do that.
  • High-Space has a default setting, The Lantern, already specified. The SFC doesn’t.

SFC VS TOOLKITS

At the top level, the difference is one of style. The toolkits presented options (different ways to design a starship, for example), and encouraged the GM to pick one, or use them as inspiration for his own custom method; they offered advice and guidance. The Companion is more prescriptive, offering a single starship design method as the approved approach; it offers actual rules.

Things the Companion adds:

  • Nothing I’ve noticed. I could’ve missed something, mind.

Things it takes away:

  • The random alien creature generator. I get the feeling some of the actual creatures are gone too, but the page count is about the same, so maybe I’m wrong.
  • The Weird Science Edges and notes on that Arcane Background.
  • The superhero lair generator (from Necessary Evil).
  • Much of the GM’s advice on setting design.
  • I’m sure the total number of example vehicles, power armour suits etc. is lower; I haven’t checked to see if the surviving ones are new, or recycled.
  • Psionics and extra powers (which I think, but have not checked, are mostly in SWD now).
  • The notes on time travel.

Things it changes:

  • It’s aligned with Savage Worlds Deluxe rather than the earlier Explorers’ Edition. This doesn’t change much other than the chase rules.
  • Hacking and cyberspace. This is simplified, with a suggestion to use Interface Zero if you want more complexity.

MY PREFERENCE

Of the three – High-Space, the SF toolkits, or the Sci Fi Companion – I prefer the Companion, for these reasons:

  • It’s easier for me to understand and explain to players. High-Space is unclear to me in places, and the toolkits offer too many options.
  • It’s a single, tightly-integrated book. Both of the other options are composed of three books, and the toolkits by their nature are not such a cohesive whole.
  • It’s closest to the type of game I like to run best, no doubt due to a youth misspent reading Poul Anderson and E C Tubb, and playing Classic Traveller.

Is there anything that makes the Companion a “must-have”? That depends on what you want. In my case, I like it for the vehicle and ship design rules, but I could (and have) run SF games without it. My usual rule of thumb is that if I’m still using it on a regular basis a year after I bought it, it graduates to “must have”. Let’s see if I’m still as enthusiastic about it in January 2015…

Review: SW Sci Fi Companion

I’ve been waiting for this one for a long time! The Sci Fi Companion is a Savage Worlds supplement which expands the Deluxe core rules to cover the science fiction genre. That gives it a lot of ground to cover, from Grey Lensman to Accelerando, from Star Wars to Gattaca, from Doctor Who to Person of Interest… Let’s take a look inside and see how well it does…

CONTENTS

Characters (10 pages): This chapter includes the introduction, then moves on to a point-buy race builder much like the one in the Deluxe Edition, but with more detailed and better laid out explanations of positive and negative abilities. The abilities themselves seem much the same.

There are then 13 sample races, which at first glance seemed to include half-a-dozen repeats of races in the core rulebook; but when I read the detail I could see that apart from humans, they have been built differently. Avions, for example, have the same name and retain the Flight and Hollow Boned abilities, but now gain an extra Agility die step and the Low-G Worlder Hindrance.

The races are aquarians (a bit like Atlanteans from the core rulebook), aurax (kinda-sorta centaurs), avions, constructs (a bit like androids), deaders (slug parasites that "wear" dead human bodies), florans (plant people), humans (look in the mirror), insectoids (ant-mantis-human hybrids), kalians (four-armed, agile humanoids), rakashans (almost identical to the core rulebook version), saurians (changed a bit from the core rules), Serrans (the inevitable telepathic humanoids, although at least they aren’t specifically smug tree-huggers who turn their backs on That Evil Technology), and yetis (big, furry, would do for Wookiees at a pinch).

There are 7 new Hindrances; the one that grabbed my attention was Low Tech/High tech, available in major and minor versions. This Hindrance effectively gives a range of 5 tech levels – major low, minor low, average, minor high and major high – by giving the character penalties on using gear that’s not at the campaign’s average tech level, whatever that is.

New edges next; there are 7 of those too, including Heavy-G Worlder (Low-G and Zero-G Worlder are Hindrances). I like Geared Up best; you get $10,000 of starting gear each time you take it, but this is a one-time benefit like using a skill point to take more starting cash; lose it and it’s gone.

Notice, no new skills or changes to existing ones. Not that I mind. Although Knowledge (Astrogation) turns up in the Starships chapter, later on.

Gear (13 pages): In addition to the 5 tech levels implied by Hindrances, the gear chapter introduces a sixth – Ultra Tech, for game-changing advanced technology. After a short discussion of various methods for tracking ammo, we move on into the gear list, which is divided into personal equipment (the usual suspects, except this is the first time I’ve seen a 3D printer as something PCs can buy), armour (including Ultra-Tech personal force fields), and weapons; disintegrators, flamers, flechette guns, gyrojets, lasers (slightly different to the ones in the core rules), particle accelerators/blasters, plasma guns, rocket launchers, stun guns, high-tech versions of yer basic slugthrowers, and vehicular weapons from MGs to heavy torpedoes and mass drivers. Most of this section is weapon stats, but that is because weapons have more stats than most gear.

Throughout, gear uses the normal SW approach; what it does is specified, how it does that is left up to the GM.

Setting Rules (3 pages): This chapter has rules for different types of atmospheres, gravity, hacking, salvage and trade. Hacking in SFC is either a straight skill roll or a dramatic task; if you want more than that, you’re advised to get Interface Zero (which is lurking on my hard drive somewhere, and may get reviewed one day).

Cyberware (3 pages): Here we find a new derived attribute, Strain, which is two plus half the lower of your Spirit or Vigour and defines how much cyberware you can implant; install more and you get permanent Fatigue levels. That’s the first page of this section; pages two and three are cyberware enhancements such as communicators, subdermal armour, built-in weapons and so forth.

Power Armour (4 pages): This part of the book introduces Mods. Various vehicles, robots etc. are built by taking a basic chassis, which has a Mods rating, and adding components which each require a number of Mods points, until you run out of Mods rating, money or imagination. There are three basic chassis for powered armour, 17 optional components, and half-a-dozen pre-worked examples. I immediately started thinking about how to represent suits from favourite games and fictional works in game terms, which is a good sign.

Robots (4 pages): Same story; basic chassis with Mods points, 21 optional components costing Mods points, four worked examples. Setting rules for repairs, maintenance, glitches for unmaintained robots. Robots are essentially customisable Extras, or Wild Cards if you pay the extra for that.

Starships (11 pages): There are 6 basic hulls, rated like vehicles in the core rules, with Mods points used in the usual way for combinations of 28 optional components. There are rules for fuel costs, provisions, repairs, crew wages, hyperspace travel, and starship combat (a modified version of the core Chase rules, which is how I would’ve done it myself). There are guidelines for using miniatures for ship combat, too. 13 example ships are provided, as are guidelines for how much ship a group of PCs should start with, if you want to do that (I probably would).

Hyperspace deserves a more detailed look. A jump requires a Knowledge (Astrogation) roll and can take you anywhere, although jumps within a solar system are easier and jumps to another galaxy are harder; they take 2d6 days, less if you roll well or spend extra fuel to go faster. Essentially, all star systems in the same galaxy are the same distance apart; goodbye star maps, hello intriguing implications for galactic politics (of which more perhaps in a later post).

Vehicles (7 pages): Are rated, unsurprisingly, like vehicles. Again, they have Mods ratings and 35 optional components to consume them; there are six basic chassis, rated only by size, since how they move (jets, tracks, antigrav) are covered by Mods. There are rules for tracking ammo and fuel, and guidelines for the budget a group might have if the game will revolve around vehicle combat. There are 18 sample vehicles, ranging from dirt bikes to shielded hovertanks.

Walkers (5 pages): Get yer mechs here. They are built much like power armour, but are bigger (up to 50′ tall). Three types of chassis, 18 optional components, six example mechs, special rules for mech combat – notably that these compartmentalised behemoths can never suffer more than two wounds from an attack, whatever the damage result is.

World Maker (4 pages): Random tables for generating planets; gravity, dominant terrain type, atmosphere, population density, government, law level, customs (which may apply only to specific groups), spaceport, technology level.

Travelers & Xenos (30 pages): Stock NPCs and alien animals, each with a short description and a statblock. Includes psi-knights (*cough* Jedi *cough*), variant swarms, and a couple of example empires and organisations as well as individual foes – nice touch, that.

…and we close with an index.

FORMAT

Full colour cover; layered PDF (huzzah!) so you can suppress the foreground, background, text, illustrations or guides/grids individually. If you like, I guess you can suppress them all and get blank pages… anyway, behind all the layout and illos is black on white two-column text in readable fonts.

Gets the job done.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

What happens when a character with High Tech (Major) tries to use stuff made on a world where everyone has Low Tech (Minor)? I’d probably stack the penalties so he’s working at -6.

I really like the idea of rating starships like characters, and making them a playable race as High-Space does; so I would have voted to include that. However, Pinnacle took a conscious decision not to go down that route – fair enough, it’s their game.

CONCLUSIONS

This book replaces the earlier SF Toolkits, in the same way that the Fantasy Companion replaced the Fantasy Toolkits. Likewise, it takes a more prescriptive approach to genre specifics than the toolkits did.

How does it do at covering the vast playground of SF? Well, it’s tightly focussed on space opera, and it does a good job of that; if you want to game Aliens, Babylon 5, Star Wars, Star Frontiers, Traveller and so forth, you can, but the SFC doesn’t go far beyond the space opera niche. Neither do I, to be fair, so I’m happy with it; but if that’s not your goal, you might be better served by something else – probably something that isn’t the fast, furious pulpiness of Savage Worlds.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. I’m not playing much at the moment, but I expect to have fun shortly with the various vehicle and powered armour sections. Watch this space!

Oh, and I forgot to mention earlier that it’s a 98 page PDF and currently costs $14.99.

CODA

At the same time, Pinnacle has released the second edition of the Super Powers Companion. Supers aren’t my cup of tea; I reckon anyone who works all day at a normal job, then dresses up in skin-tight spandex and goes out at night looking for like-minded individuals to beat up, is somebody with serious psychological problems, superpowers or not. So if I were to run a supers game, it would be inspired by Watchmen or The Boys rather than Superman or the Avengers. That aside, be aware that the SPC is now available if that floats your boat, and it seems to be quite tightly integrated with the SF Companion.

Dice, Dice, Baby

I haven’t discarded my intention of limiting myself to Savage Worlds and All Things Zombie just yet, because these were a Christmas present from one of my daughters and her husband; a set of Dungeonmorph Dice from Inkwell Ideas, price unknown.

What you get are five dice with a key on a small piece of paper. The text is on the edge of eyestraining unreadability for me, but someone a few decades younger might manage it; meanwhile, I’ll scan the blighter and magnify it.

dmdice

A bit blurry, but actually a good representation of what they look like with my unaided eyesight.

The dice are about 23mm on a side, and each side has a black on white dungeon geomorph, 10 x 10 squares in size; a number, presumably so you can use them as regular dice as well; and a letter, which tells you what general kind of area that face represents. Then there are a number of symbols on each face, which the map key explains; traps, architectural features, that kind of thing. You’ve probably worked out by now that this Explorer’s Set has 30 geomorphs, and there are other sets which can expand that number.

At 5’ per square, each geomorph is 50’ x 50’; at 10’ per square, obviously 100’ x 100’. The random throw above has about 45 encounter areas in it, and I could see myself transferring the throw onto some graph paper, throwing again, expanding the dungeon, and just carrying on until I got bored. Or, more likely, taking a picture and adding the new sections in an image editor – if indeed I need to do that, I could revert to my usual London Underground map for the big level map and throw four dice for each station for the detail.

This is a clever idea, well executed; there are a number of RPGs in my collection with random monster tables but no random dungeon generator (OD&D, I’m lookin’ at you). I personally will need a magnifying glass to use them, but that’s my eyesight; the alternative would be to make the dice bigger, and they are already about as big as they can be and still be throwable as a group.

Rating: 4 out of 5 – will probably see use at some point.