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…

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.