Dogs in the Vineyard

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power." – Abraham Lincoln

Last weekend, two out of town gamers (Sal and Robert) were visiting my daughter Giulia and her husband Tenchi. Would I run a game for them? Of course I would. Sal really wanted to play Dogs in the Vineyard; would I mind running that? No, of course not, I’ve had it for years and just never got around to using it as a guest game – why not now?

So this post is part review and part session write-up. I read the rulebook again, started out using the Box Elder Canyon Branch adventure in that, and modified it on the fly as we played.

THE STORY

Brother Cadmus has decided that his role as Territorial Agent and census-taker warrants a living wage, and is spending his whole time lobbying for that rather than running his farm (Pride). His wife, Sister Felicity, has to feed their three children somehow, so has started making moonshine in the barn and selling it (Injustice).

Brother Ephraim, a farm hand, runs out of money to buy whiskey, so breaks into the church at night to steal the silver Tree of Life from the altar. While he is in there, his lantern’s light attracts the attention of Brother Benjamin, and when Benjamin enters to investigate, the lantern is knocked over, burning the church to the ground and severely disfiguring Benjamin while Ephraim escapes out of the rear window (more Injustice).

Benjamin decides that this is the doing of the Mountain People woman Eve Many Horses, on the grounds that some Mountain People pray to spirits and therefore she must be a witch (still more Injustice). He starts praying for her death (Heresy), and decides that the Steward, Brother Artax, is unfit for duty because of his tainted blood (either more Injustice or additional Heresy). Meanwhile, Ephraim, wracked by guilt, has introduced Benjamin to moonshine to dull the pain (definiftely more Injustice and Heresy) and is spending far too much time with him; he hasn’t joined in the prayers yet, but some night soon that’s bound to happen over a shared mason jar of moonshine.

It’s at this point that four newly-minted Dogs ride into town. After a couple of days asking questions, a stake-out of Brother Cadmus’ farm, and a couple of fist-fights both ended by Sal’s Dog brandishing an enormous revolver, they work out that moonshine is involved, where it came from, and who’s buying it; a short but brutal field interrogation on one of the outlying farms buys the Dogs the story of what happened in the church, at the cost of one of Brother Ephraim’s fingers.

The Dogs explain forcefully to Brother Cadmus that he needs to straighten up and fly right, make him demolish the still, and give his wife some money and herbal recipes to tide them over until the farm is back in production. They give Brother Benjamin a herbal pain-relief placebo in the hope this will help him give up moonshine.

The Dogs drag Ephraim into town, explain to the congregation what really happened, and entreat them half-heartedly not to kill him. Brother Benjamin opines that "It was thet Mountain People Witch what made him do it," but they ride off satisfied with a job well done.

Meanwhile, in the darkness of his cellar, Brother Benjamin continues to pray for Eve’s early and unpleasant demise. And the Dogs have established the doctrinal precedent that sometimes it’s okay to drink moonshine for medicinal purposes… In an ongoing campaign, those two issues would come back to bite them at some point, probably the next time their circuit brings them back to Box Elder Canyon.

QUOTE OF THE SESSION

“We’re comforting the children by telling them their mother has been possessed by a demon.”

They meant it wasn’t really her fault, and she was okay again now, but you can imagine how the kids took it…

WHAT WENT WELL

We were totally immersed in the game – we started playing around 11 AM, and at 2.30 PM realised we’d missed lunch, so whipped up some guacamole and ate it at the gaming table. We finished around 4 PM, and by the end players were making the Sign of the Tree at each other (and NPCs) over the table at dramatically appropriate points.

In hindsight, character creation was the most enjoyable part of the session. Sal explained this best I think, saying "It’s not often you get to play through the pivotal moment of your character’s life." It’d be interesting to see how the group character creation in Mongoose Traveller worked with this team, I think it would go well.

Sal’s exorcism of a demon in training went right down to the wire, but he succeeded in the end; let’s just say he got a new Trait out of that, “Whatever it takes 1d6”, and leave it at that. Tenchi’s character has a complicated history, and for his training challenge bluffed his way out of being recognised by an old criminal acquaintance thanks to an unusual Belonging – "Mammoth beard 2d8". We decided that since it could be shaved off, it was a Belonging not a Trait.

Giulia’s herbalist character took as an aspiration "I hope I don’t get addicted to any of the herbs we use," and only made it thanks to the intervention of Robert’s PC, the use of her Dog’s Coat ("I focus on the coat, it reminds me of my family, and I know I can’t let them down like this,") and her horse – which ate the supply of offending herbs. The fallout is that her horse now has the trait "Addicted to herbs 1d6".

The Dogs’ Coats were a real hit. All the players were happy describing their coats, and how the coats changed as the game went on, and like me they love the idea that you can apply permanent damage to your coat to avoid more serious long-term fallout. Sal’s Dog has a coat where he makes marks representing each demon he has faced down, and how much fun could a GM have with that? Giulia’s coat is a herbal, embroidered with all the various healing herbs – the idea is that she can point at them and say "I need this to save your father’s life," and so on. She is defacing the pictures of the addictive herbs, but still trying them all – after all, someone has to find out, right? Robert’s Dog’s coat is torn and bloodstained where he was gored by an ox while saving the life of a ploughboy previously gored by the same ox. Tenchi’s Dog? Well, nobody’s going to notice the coat while it’s obscured by a 2d8 beard.

As a GM, I was delighted by the discussions around the table about what would be a just punishment for each of the sinners. I gave them a range of repentance – or lack thereof – from “Oh Lord, what have I done?” (Cadmus) to “Where were the Dogs when I needed them? Where was the King of Life when I needed him?” (Benjamin) to “Please don’t cut off my hand! I’ll be good!” (Ephraim) to “The King has placed me in Stewardship over these children, and they will not go hungry while I am their Steward!” (Felicity). It was fascinating to watch their reactions, especially with Ephraim, where they decided that a one-handed farmhand would be a burden on a small community, but they had to cut something off or the congregation would kill him for burning down the church. Cadmus and Felicity showed genuine repentance and got mercy in return, Ephraim showed fake repentance and was maimed, Benjamin showed no repentance at all, but they decided his hideous burns had been gained doing the King’s work and were in and of themselves punishment enough.

WHAT COULD’VE GONE BETTER

Conflict resolution got in the way for me as the GM, and I’m pretty sure I was doing it wrong, so I fell more and more into straight narrative play as the game progressed. A few more sessions would fix that problem, I think. I did briefly consider using the super-cool setting with Savage Worlds as the game engine, but I think the poker-style conflict resolution is so central to the feel of the game that it wouldn’t work

I hadn’t prepared any NPC statblocks in advance, so I was making them up as I went along, and I think conflict was too easy as a result. It didn’t seem to hurt the game, though.

From the constant talk around the table about exorcising demons, and the fact that one of the characters invested heavily in demonology skills and demon-suppression equipment, I should have realised that the group wanted the game to be about demonic possession. That would have been easy to add into the game by using Demonic Influence dice, which I completely forgot about.

The players started off investigating the church fire, then spent most of the session chasing moonshiners, before remembering they had decided the important thing was to find and punish the church-burner. They never did figure out what Brother Benjamin was up to.

LESSONS LEARNED

You need more d4, d8 and d10 for Dogs than we normally have around – as three of the five at the table were Shadowrun players, there was no shortage of d6. This is because when you roll a die, it needs to stay on the table until that conflict is over, whereas in a typical game you would use the score right away and reroll the die.

Dogs is more about solving puzzles and interacting with NPCs than it is about killing things and taking their stuff. With the group of players we had, that worked very well.

Dogs has a very different vibe to most games we play, because of who the characters are. The players like having total authority over NPCs and total freedom of action, because the NPCs acknowledge they are Big Damn Heroes. As a GM, I like being able to cut to the chase – the NPCs tumble over themselves to involve the Dogs in their problems, so no valuable session time is used up identifying the problem or persuading the NPCs to help. This works very well and would be easy to use in any other game.

The way towns are set up works well to create an adventure, and would work well in any game for scenarios of mystery or intrigue.

THE VERDICT

The players?

  • Tenchi: That was more fun than I expected.
  • Sal: It was everything I hoped for, and more. I have to play this again.

The GM?

  • Dogs in the Vineyard is really a supernatural Western detective show, and a lot of fun to play – that was one of the best sessions we’ve had in years.
  • There are many lessons to learn from this game, but it’s unlikely to topple my favourites from their pedestals.
  • As always, who’s playing matters more than what we play. For this group, Dogs in the Vineyard works really well.

Review: Nova Praxis

In a Nutshell: Transhumanist science fiction setting for Savage Worlds, converted from its original game system, FATE. 311 page PDF by Void Star Studios.

To use the setting, you need Savage Worlds Deluxe, the usual pencils, paper and dice. The SW Science Fiction Companion is optional but recommended; you won’t need it, though, unless your game makes heavy use of vehicles, starships or mecha. I Kickstarted this because it looked cool, and indeed it is cool.

CONTENTS

About half the book is used to detail the setting, which is post-scarcity, transhumanist, and hard SF. The basic premise is that humanity creates an AI (called Mimir), which creates all sorts of cool toys nobody really understands, then expires. Earth is rendered uninhabitable by nanomachines run amok, and the few survivors flee to the other worlds of the solar system and a handful of exoplanets.

Nation-states have been replaced by corporate entities which now call themselves Houses and have banded together into a Coalition. Coalition citizens have all their basic needs provided for, but live under constant control and surveillance by the Houses. Those who prefer freedom and privacy, the so-called Apostates, live on the fringes of society, often by illegal means.

The main conflicts in the setting are the open one between the Coalition and the Apostates, the covert war for supremacy between the six great Houses, and the ideological one between transhumanists and those preaching human purity. For convenience, the advice to the GM assumes that the PCs are deniable operatives fighting the covert war (*cough* Shadowrunners *cough*), but other campaign types are certainly possible.

The hard SF aspect of the setting is that with a couple of exceptions (interstellar jumps, artificial gravity) there’s nothing here that isn’t an extrapolation of existing technology. It’s also reflected in the setting rules: Blood and Guts, Critical Failures, and Gritty Damage.

The post-scarcity aspect is reflected in two new characteristics; Rep and Assets. Rep measures how valuable the Coalition thinks you are, while Assets determine what stuff you’ve got stashed; essentially you use Rep to get hold of legal goods, and Assets to barter on the black market. (High-Space is also a post-scarcity setting which assumes free gear assigned by Rep, but simplifies matters by saying your Rep is effectively your Rank – Seasoned, Heroic, or whatever.) Nova Praxis bases Rep and Assets on your initial skills and edges, and increments them as you advance in Rank. Rep and Asset ratings translate into die types you roll to buy things or ask for favours. NPCs can bump your Rep if you’ve impressed them, or damage it if you haven’t; these bumps or hits are in units of 5% of a Rep point, but how many units are applied depends on the NPC’s Rep. This is a clever mechanic, replacing the financial rewards one would find in other settings.

The transhumanist aspect is covered by how characters are created, recreated, and advanced.

Character creation is more difficult if you aren’t familiar with the background, since several key choices rely on an understanding of the setting. The first of these is what kind of character you will play, your "state"; pure, sleeved or SIM (Substrate-Independent Mind). Pure characters retain a human mind and body, sleeved characters exist in a single organic or synthetic body (the "sleeve"), and SIMs are digital entities existing only in virtual reality, interacting with the real world only through Coalition-sponsored sensors and machinery. PCs can move from pure to sleeved or SIM during play, becoming effectively immortal as their consciousness can then be restored from backup, but once they leave the pure state, they can never go back. Sleeved PCs can resleeve themselves in a new body; when they do so, certain Edges and Hindrances are lost, and must be replaced with others in consultation with the GM. A sleeve also has its own attributes, so you need to keep track of both your sleeved PC’s "natural" attributes, and the attributes of the sleeve he or she currently inhabits.

There are no aliens or demihumans in the setting, although you can emulate some of them with sleeves. To offset the advantages of being sleeved or a SIM, pure PCs have access to the Path of Purity, which gives them advantages due to their sheer willpower.

The only Arcane Background in the setting is Savant, representing a sleeved or SIM PC who has hacked the code of his own uploaded mind and so gained power over the technology around him. These abilities are represented as unique "programs" rather than trappings on existing Powers, which is how I would have been tempted to do it. Some of these let you edit other people’s minds, which is no doubt part of the reason Savants are generally distrusted.

The second setting-specific choice is your allegiance, which is to one of the great Houses, or Apostate. (If you choose one of the Houses, you may take an Edge which grants you bonuses on skills the House is renowned for and easier access to goods it specialises in.)

This setting makes significant changes to the core skills, edges and hindrances of Savage Worlds, and adds a number of new ones, too many to detail here. Your state affects which of them you can select.

There is a new secondary statistic, Cohesion, and two additional wound tracks, Fragmentation and Glitches. Cohesion is the PC’s sense of self, and is used as a modifier on rolls to resist Fragmentation, which are triggered when he changes state or resleeves; fragment enough and get a free psychosis, manifesting itself as a new Hindrance. Glitches are what happens to a Savant when his programs fail, collect enough and go offline while your mind reboots. You don’t really need any of those if you’re playing a plain vanilla human, though.

All of this makes character creation more complex than usual; fortunately, there are five iconic, pre-generated PCs to pick up and play; Alexei the Savant, Anders the pure Apostate, Jane the mercenary, Malpheus the SIM, and Reagan the tactical genius.

There’s a ton of gear, which as usual I will gloss over; personal weapons are railguns, coilguns or particle accelerators for the most part, armour consists of basic chassis types to which you can apply features of your choice (much in the same way that the SFC builds vehicles), there’s a range of miscellaneous gear and a section on sleeves and augmenting your original body or sleeve with cyberware. Note that a sleeve can be a clone of your original body, if you so wish. There are a bunch of sample sleeves and drones. Vehicles use the SFC rules, but non-standard mods; fuel is unimportant as they are powered by antimatter reactors. There are some stock designs, and notes on using SFC vehicles.

There are a number of stand-alone plot hooks scattered throughout the book, but the GM’s chapter offers four campaign arcs, as well as a number of factions, secret societies and entities whose existence or activities are not public knowledge, and example NPCs.

Finally, a new character sheet – this is necessary because of the changes Nova Praxis makes to the core rules.

FORMAT

There’s a lot of nice full-colour art, though it’s mostly restricted to chapter frontispieces.

For some reason the entire PDF is form-fillable, and on my PC and tablet at least it is much more sluggish than other PDFs of equivalent size and I have to suppress side windows every time I open it. Not impressed, sorry; this is my biggest gripe about the product.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Does the PDF need to be form-fillable? Does it need to be 78 MB in size?

CONCLUSIONS

This is actually a pretty nifty setting. It makes more changes to the core Savage Worlds rules than I’m entirely comfortable with, but they meld with the setting seamlessly, and SW without modifications wouldn’t work as well here – the pulpy style of the vanilla core rules is better suited to space opera than transhumanism.

Comparing it to the competition…

  • I prefer the setting and mechanics of Nova Praxis to High-Space, although it would still be cool to have starships as PCs.
  • Interface Zero has a richer, more detailed setting, but no starships or exoplanets, and I like my starships.
  • Eclipse Phase is creepier and much more complicated, too complex for me to run I fear.

For my next science-fiction campaign, I have a choice between classic space opera in the vein of Star Wars, or taking Shadowrun a century further into the future and turning the volume up to 11, both of which are attractive in their own way. The former would suit The Last Parsec, the latter Nova Praxis; so it looks like one of those is coming to a gaming table near me shortly – which it will be depends on how The Last Parsec turns out. We’ll know that in a few weeks, stay tuned for a review.

Review: Interface Zero 2.0

“If you’re looking for more detailed rules for cyberspace, check out Interface Zero 2.0 by Gun Metal Games.” – Savage Worlds Science Fiction Companion

In a Nutshell: THE cyberpunk and near-future setting for Savage Worlds. ‘Nuff said. Published by Gun Metal Games.

CONTENTS

This is a 320 page PDF, so these are the highlights rather than a blow-by-blow account of each chapter.

Character creation follows the usual Savage Worlds approach, although the designers recommend using skill specialisations and giving PCs an extra 5 skill points to help that along. There are 16 archetypes for those like me who just want to jump in and play. As SF settings go, Interface Zero leans towards hard SF, so you’ll find no orcs here; but available races include hybrids, characters whose DNA has been spliced with that of various animals, and you can use those to match Shadowrun races or the Intelligent Gerbil races common in space opera. You can also play an android, bioroid, cyborg, simulacrum, vanilla human or genetically-engineered human, although the setting stops short of full-on digital PCs existing only as substrate-independent software. Psionics is permitted as an Arcane Background.

There’s the usual crop of new edges and hindrances. I tend to gloss over these as part of a conscious decision to stay as close to the core rules as possible (which simplifies the learning curve for the whole group, including me), but they cover everything I’d need to adapt any genre story I’m familiar with except Johnny Mnemonic’s amnesia; I suppose you could do that with Clueless, actually.

There’s a huge gear chapter, which includes flavour text on the various manufacturers. As you’d expect, this is heavy on weapons (ranging from knives through chainswords to particle beam rifles); cyberware (and there is a new derived stat, Strain, which limits how much you can install); and drones. There are also a small range of robots, various drugs, and both standard mecha and rules for building custom ones. More unusual is the section on entertainment products and fast food joints.

The chapters on The World and The Solar System are 160 pages of intricate, interlocking setting information that I’m not sure I’ve fully internalised even after several readings, dripping with plot hooks. I’m not even going to try to summarise them, other than to say they are very, very good.

The game master section has random adventure and gang generators, city trappings (tags which affect how the PCs’ skills etc operate in that area), and advice on how to run the game, notably what type of missions a group would be offered and how much they would get paid, both depending on the party’s rank; a group of Novices might be offered Cr 500 apiece to do some leg-breaking, while a group of Legendary characters might be offered Cr 125,000 each to assassinate a corporate CEO.

It’s worth noting that the Pinnacle’s own Science Fiction Companion refers to this as the go-to product for detailed cyberspace rules.

FORMAT

This is a layered PDF, meaning you can switch off the background layer to make it more printer-friendly. There’s a lot of full-colour artwork – I’m tempted to call it "lavishly illustrated".

Flavour text is often written as if it were an online debate between characters in the setting, which works well, especially as a means to get across multiple views of the same topic, any of which could be the truth in your campaign.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

There are a few places where terms are used before they’re defined. This isn’t a huge problem, keep reading and in a few pages all is revealed. It’d be nice to have some sort of sidebar or appendix with a glossary, though.

CONCLUSIONS

When I started reading Interface Zero, I thought "This is the Savage Worlds version of Shadowrun," and indeed it can be if that’s what you want; but it’s much more than that. Beyond its own lavish backstory and setting, this is a toolkit you can use for almost any near-future science fiction game – the one thing it doesn’t cover is starships. You could use it for Neuromancer, Judge Dredd, Mad Max, Shadowrun, Outland, Blade Runner, Deus Ex, System Shock, Dark Angel, and others; I’ve seriously considered adding starships and using it as the core of a space opera game in a similar vein to 2300AD.

This is a solid product, well-crafted and inspiring, the best science fiction setting for Savage Worlds I have seen yet, and it’s now the yardstick against which I will measure all the others. The main thing that stops me running it is that we also play Shadowrun occasionally, and I don’t want to tread on that GM’s toes.

B&B Hero Construction Set

A couple of years ago I bought the Beasts & Barbarians Hero Construction Set from Okumarts; I don’t normally do standees, but I like David Okum’s artistic style so I do have a few of his 2D figure sets. Last weekend, with the family still occupied elsewhere, I finally got around to building a set as an experiment. They look like this:

20140601

Left to right: Valk, Cairnlander, Gladiator, Barbarian, some chick with a dagger, Amazon, Ivory Savannah tribesman, Tricarnian, Jademan Monk, creepy sorceror dude, Alchemist, Red Desert tribesman.

So how did it work out? Well, firstly, the speed is a big improvement. It’s only taken me two years to get these ready for the tabletop, whereas my last batch of metal figures took eight years. In hindsight, it was a huge mistake getting rid of the figures I painted while I was in college, because I have not had the time since I started working and raising a family to replace them.

Secondly, they are surprisingly robust and stable. I was really dubious about the recommended basing technique (cutting a slot in a piece of foamcore), but it does work very well, once I learned not to press the figures into the foam board too hard – they bend at the ankles if you do that, although since I printed them on 160 gsm card (which folds up to 320 gsm) they recover quite well from that.

Thirdly, I need a thinner permanent marker. Running a black marker around the edge of the figure makes a surprising difference to how good it looks, but trying to force the chisel-tipped one I have into the little nooks and crannies around weapons means it often slips off and leaves ugly black marks on the figures. You can’t really see the mistakes from arm’s length, but I know they’re there, and it bugs me.

Fourthly – and this is important given my almost total lack of artistic and craft skills – there’s a lot less frustration and swearing involved, because if I ruin one of these figures I can replace it very quickly and easily.

Finally, though, this bills itself as a hero construction set, and that’s what it is. This set gives you a good range of Beasts & Barbarians heroes, but no mooks; if you want a couple of dozen Valk as opposition, say, you’re either going to print off loads of copies of this set, or find something else to proxy for them. (If I were to do that and stick with the same artistic style, I’d use Okum Arts’ hobgoblins.)

CONCLUSION

These little guys are not as nice-looking as a well-painted mini, but they are a lot cheaper, much faster to prepare, I get a lot less angry when one of them gets taken out by a passing elbow and I’m a big fan of the artistic style. So I can see myself using Okumarts’ standees for future games.

The range includes Wild West, classic fantasy and (obviously) Beasts & Barbarians, retro SF and Chinese martial arts figures. I can get zombies from the megaset “Katana Schoolgirls vs Zombie Furries”, but there are no modern or near-future figures unless you count the kilted highlanders in the Spot of Bother set. More moderns, please!

I wonder how long it will be before I can buy 3D printer files for minis and print them out at a local copy shop? If they came pre-coloured so that I didn’t have to paint them, that would be the best of all worlds.

Review: Zed or Alive

Not doing so well on the sticking to my wish list front, am I? But you can’t expect me to resist this one… you’ll see…

In a Nutshell: The Zombie Apocalypse for Savage Worlds’ Showdown miniatures rules, by Rust Devil Games. Intended for head-to-head skirmish wargaming, but also viable for co-op, solo, and RPG games. 102 page PDF. You need the Showdown rules as well as this book to play, but since those are free to download from Pinnacle Entertainment, I’ll let ‘em off just this once.

CONTENTS

Chapter 1: Welcome to Zed or Alive (5 pages)

This introductory chapter tells you what you’re letting yourself in for: A campaign-style skirmish wargame with zombies. A grimdark settlement (Stadium City, so called because it’s built in an abandoned sports complex) barely holding out against the zombie hordes.

It also explains the setting rules. Bailing effectively introduces a morale check, a Spirit test taken by the group’s leader when a member drops or is eaten by zeds, representing his (or her) decision to sauve qui peut. There are expanded rules for climbing and breaking down doors – take heart, only a couple of paragraphs. The Pain rule means that when figures are hurt, they must pass a Spirit check or scream in pain (drawing zombies). And so on. The key point is that the world of ZOA is dangerous. Wild Cards don’t get bennies. There’s a variant incapacitation rule called Bleeding Out which I haven’t really grasped; maybe it will become clear in play. Nobody has Arcane Backgrounds.

Chapter 2: Denizens of the Dead World (14 pages)

These come in four flavours: Survivors, Tribals, Military and Shamblers. You begin with $400 – effectively, points – with which to buy figures and equipment; your group must be 2-4 figures to start with, and can grow to 8 over time. You need to track food, water, ammo, experience points and a few other things. Depending on which flavour of group you choose, you select members from a series of pregenerated characters, each with their own stats, skills, edges, hindrances and points cost.

Something that feels a bit clunky here is that the group’s Fame is calculated using a different table of values from the one you use to buy them. Still, that only matters once, when you set them up.

Something I like is that each group has a camp. More of that later.

Survivors are what it says on the tin; regular people who’re just having a bad day. They may elect to start with a random edge and a random hindrance, but the word "elect" implies to me that they need not. There are four survivor templates; Everyman (jack of all trades), Veteran (has police or military experience), Worker (good at building and fixing stuff), Kid (lucky), and Caregiver (medic type).

Tribals are your traditional cannibal gangers living in the ruins and eating Survivors. They may be Warchiefs (leaders), Shaman (fixer/healers – the Tribals have lost most of their technical knowledge), Headhunters (the basic Tribal), or Quislings (insane pets who can sometimes pass for Shamblers).

The Military are the field representatives of surviving government officials, who now live in underground bunkers, searching desperately for The Cure. They are utterly ruthless, and see the other groups as at best a way to distract zombies, and at worst as lab animals. Military figures include Grunts (the basic), Medics, Operators (elite special forces veterans), and Snipers. They differ from the other groups in having specific missions to accomplish, and regular resupply by airdrops; Survivors and Tribals are generally scavenging when you meet them.

Unlike the other three group types, Shamblers are NPCs operated by the rules rather than a player. Like most zombies in fiction, they are attracted to noise; one of the game aids is a decibel meter, and the more noise you make, the further away zombies can detect you. If that distance reaches the maximum (12"), then more noise not only attracts the zeds that were already present, but generates more of them. I rather like that, I’ll have to try it out. It is also possible to play as the Virus Strain, but I’ll talk about that under the Campaigns chapter.

This is actually quite cleverly thought out, as there is a logical reason for each faction to fight all of the others.

Chapter 3: Confrontations (10 pages)

These are the scenarios used for individual games. Ambush, Finders Keepers, Rumble, and The Drop are head-to-head; The Horde, Highway of the Damned, Outbreak, The Hunt, and Thinning the Herd are co-op (and can be played solo or head to head as well).

  • Ambush: One group is returning from a successful scavenging mission, when a second group attacks.
  • The Drop: A Military group is being resupplied by air, but another group found the supplies first.
  • Finders, Keepers: Two groups fight for possession of rich loot.
  • Rumble: Two hostile groups encounter each other in the ruins, and decide to teach each other a lesson.
  • Outbreak: Just when the groups thought it was safe to relax, the infection takes hold inside their supposed haven – both need to get out before the zeds eat them, preferably taking some civilian NPCs with them. (Tribals are allowed to eat them later.)
  • Highway of the Damned: Looting traffic jams for fun and profit.
  • The Horde: Two groups are just about to fight over some loot when a zombie horde surrounds them; they must work together to survive.
  • The Hunt: An especially large and vicious aberrant zombie is causing trouble. Sort it out.
  • Thinning the Herd: There are just too many zombies near Stadium City. Discourage them for a bounty payment.

Weather rules are found here, too.

I like that under the random generation table for confrontations, even though your groups may be enemies, the luck of the dice may force them to co-operate to survive.

If I understand correctly, because Shamblers always move last, and they’re the only foes you would meet in a solo game, you could play solo without drawing for initiative – unless you wanted a chance of getting a joker, of course.

Chapter 4: Campaigns (47 pages)

The campaign rules let you string together a series of confrontations into a longer story, by adding rules for what happens between scenarios; treating wounded, managing supplies, and so forth. The game assumes a week passes between confrontations.

The premise for wound treatment is that most people still alive a few years after The Crash are resistant to the zombie virus in some way. Consequently, it seems that they are easily taken out of the fight, but not easily killed, by wounds. However, they do accumulate damage which reduces their stats – busted kneecaps, crushed hands and so on. As usual in SW, you can use experience to buy the losses back, so it’s not as grimdark as it sounds.

Speaking of experience, it seems it would accrue at a higher rate than usual, but is based on actions during the game not on attendance at sessions as in normal SWD (not a criticism, a stylistic choice). Advancement is much as normal, though there are a number of new edges (I liked Comic Relief, which gives friends morale modifiers due to the character’s jokes) and some tweaks to existing edges and hindrances.

Between confrontations, group members may be assigned to duties such as repairing equipment, caring for wounded, scavenging for food, scouting for a new camp, buying and selling goods at the bazaar, gambling, or recruiting to replace losses. Characters with the Gadgeteer edge may also craft items from loot, for example making a great axe from a baseball bat and some circular saw blades.

This is the chapter where your group’s camp is detailed (makes sense, as you wouldn’t need it in a one-off encounter). Where you’ve holed up is decided by the draw of a card, which gives a capsule description of the location (pawn shop, mansion, or whatever) and the benefits the camp gives you, which may be trait bonuses, additional duties that can be performed there, and so forth.

Here, too, are the rules for the repair and maintenance of vehicles, and the care and feeding of animals, notably dogs (extra combatants) or horses (transport).

The penultimate part is my favourite: Virus Strains. As well as the main factions, a third player in any scenario can represent the virus itself – controlling not just ordinary Shamblers, but more advanced versions of zombies. The Virus earns experience for causing damage and killing people, which advance it to more evolved stages. As it evolves, the Virus can field more dangerous abominations (the sort of things you find in Left4Dead) and also buff the basic Shambler zombie to make it more dangerous. You can have multiple Virus players, each representing a different strain.

Finally, we have rules for importing characters from SWD roleplaying, or exporting them to it. Since Showdown is essentially SWD with the non-combat elements stripped out, this is straightforward.

Appendices (19 pages)

The Armoury, a list of weapons, armour and personal equipment; first time I’ve seen a skateboard in an equipment list. Vehicles, from bicycles to hummvees to motor homes. Freak Events. Loot Tables. Game Aids, including a decibel meter, quick reference sheet, squad sheets, and several pages of markers and burst templates.

FORMAT

Full colour throughout; two-column black on grey text, lots of pictures, some cartoonised, some out-and-out cartoons, some not.

Tables and boxouts are done in a faux handwriting font and laid out to look like post-it notes or squared notebook paper stuck on the page; the rulebook as a whole is designed to look like a manilla folder full of a survivor’s notes.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Layered PDF please, so I can print it without remortgaging my house to afford the ink.

Not so much a suggestion for improvement as a plea for enlightenment: Am I the only person left in the world who doesn’t name their miniatures? If so, what do the rest of you do when a figure dies, eh? Answer me that!

THE INEVITABLE COMPARISON WITH ALL THINGS ZOMBIE

Both are table-top zombie skirmish games suitable for head-to-head, co-op or solo play. Both are good.

ATZ ZOA
Focus Solo or co-op, head to head optional Head to head, solo or co-op optional
Turn Sequence Fluid, driven by reaction tests Draw for initiative
Undead Opponents Zombies Zombies, advanced zombies, aberrant mutations
Factions Survivors, gangers Survivors, tribals, military, virus strain
Campaign Start Day zero Some years after
AI for NPCs Advanced, with emergent behaviour Simple
Record-Keeping and Upkeep Very simple Complex, granular
Crafting Items No Yes

CONCLUSIONS

I thought I’d like this, which is why I backed the Kickstarter, and as it turns out, I do. I put in enough cash to gain access to the supplements in PDF format as they appear, so you may see those reviewed here later.

If I were still in a tabletop gaming group, I would try to get this going as a campaign, because I think it would be a blast to have a dozen or so players with various factions, and also a good gateway to roleplaying. Apart from a number of zombies, you only need a handful of figures apiece, which appeals to me; divvy the zeds up among the players and as a club you could have a decent horde in no time.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. I expect to use this at some point, probably dusting off Don and Bex from the ATZ/SWD crossover game to do so.

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…