Flack, Z+199: The Only Easy Day

"The only easy day was yesterday." – US Navy SEALs.

With my other half out of the country and my boy studying hard for exams next month, I had a little extra time this weekend just gone; and how better to use it than killing zombies?

7th July, 2013. The boys are back in town, looking for supplies but expecting to find zeds. Flack is bringing along Hardcase, Wannabe and Pugh; Wannabe needs to start earning his keep, and the other two are reliable enough. That leaves the other Pugh and Dibble guarding the land rover off-map.

SETUP

This is a Take Back scenario in daylight, in an urban area (ER 5). Take Back is risky as I have to clear the board to win, but I figure if the group is staying in town for a month, an early priority would be to secure a base of operations. As it’s a new area, I check for available supplies using the rules on p. 57; this area has 16 Body Armour, 59 Food, 29 Fuel, 53 Luxury Items, 18 Medical Supplies, and 41 Weapons.

The team move 8" onto the board and I place zombies and PEFs (dice on their own in the middle of sections, see picture below). In an urban area, there are 1d6+1 zeds per human, so 4d6+4 against the group today; we roll well, and there are only 14 of them, 4 at 4 o’clock, 2 at 6 o’clock, 2 at 8 o’clock, 2 at 10 o’clock, 4 at 12 o’clock.

You’ll see I’m using my shiny new City Deck and Risks & Rewards Deck for this game, and pawns from the Zombies!!! boardgame. Flack is Red, the Rep 4 Pugh is blue, Hardcase is green and Wannabe is yellow.

FZ199-01

TURN 1

Activation: Flack 4, Zeds 2.

Firstly, Flack can see the PEF in section 4, so I resolve it. I roll 5, 3 and given the ER of the area is 5, we’ve found something and I go to the contact tables to find out what. It turns out to be three more zeds.

Flack & Co. fast move into the Bar None. (They don’t need the extra movement, but it does make them harder to hit if anyone shoots, so I do it habitually now.) Well, what else are you gonna do in the Zombie Apocalypse?  You certainly need a drink by this stage.

I don’t bother drawing a card from the Risks & Rewards deck because initial placement put two zeds inside. We take the Charge into Melee test; Flack passes 2d6, Pugh 2d6, Hardcase 2d6, and Wannabe 0d6. Wannabe panics and opens fire with his machine pistol, missing with all three shots (not hard if you’re a fast-moving Rep 2) and generating two more zeds.

"If you fire that thing again," Pugh says, "I’m going to make you eat it."

"Can I kill him, boss?" Hardcase wants to know.

But there’s no time for that. The rest of them are attacking the zeds in melee, giving them +1 success, and the zeds are at -1d6 because of the excellent rolls from the team. Flack kills his outright, and the other fights Hardcase to a standstill until Pugh takes it Out Of the Fight which is the same as dead for a zed.

While this is going on, the two PEFs both pass 2d6 and move up two zones. The zeds move one zone, which brings three of them into contact, barging into the Bar None behind our Heroes. Oops, I should have seen that coming. More melee, and the team is at -2d6 on the Charge Into Melee test because they’re hit from behind. As we’re rolling 2d6 + 1d6 (Survivors) – 2d6 (hit from behind), all open fire. I really do have to take that MP off Wannabe, it’s physically impossible for him to hit with his Rep, all he can do is draw more zeds. The rest of them fare a little better; Flack kills one, Pugh knocks one down, and Hardcase embarrasses himself by missing everything. Four more zeds rock up, drawn by the gunfire.

The rest of the zeds march to the sound of the guns, creating a target-rich environment.

FZ199-02

TURN 2

Activation: Flack 5, zeds 4. This means only the zeds who can see humans will move; that’s basically the ones in front of the Bar None.

On the basis that there are more zeds in front of the bar than behind it, Flack leads the crew out the back door, fast-moving, and behind the Cornerstone Coffee House. This will leave them facing five zeds, but the alternatives are (a) facing 17 zeds, or (b) barricading themselves inside the Bar None and watching hopelessly as every zed on the table moves up and batters at the doors. No thanks.

More melee? Well, if you insist… Everyone except Wannabe passes 2d6, so opens fire, but Wannabe only gets one shot. Of course he misses, although I still roll in the vain hope that he runs out of ammo, but luckily no more zeds appear. That’s a small mercy, as the remaining 16 zeds now know where we are. Flack knocks two down, Pugh kills two, Hardcase kills one. Good enough. All that gunfire draws six more zeds; we have to stop doing that, but unfortunately you don’t always get a choice.

FZ199-03

TURN 3

Activation: Flack 3, zeds 2. Time to get the hell out of Dodge. The crew zip into the side entrace for Downtown Parking at a fast-move, Wannabe trailing as he passes 0d6. What’s inside? I draw a card from the R&R deck and discover it’s a brace of Casters. I’m not using those – they’re from High Rise to Hell, which I don’t have yet – and not knowing how many there are in the deck, I decide to treat them as no encounter and drive on. We’re not stopping to loot with that many zeds on our tail, so that ends the team’s activation.

The zeds move to wherever they think we might be, and the PEFs close up as far as they can without breaking cover.

At this point I check the time and discover I’m just under an hour in, halfway through the target time for the encounter. Even allowing for my being rusty, it looks like the full 16 cards is going to be too many for a typical game for me. Let’s see how things go.

FZ199-04

TURN 4

Activation: Flack 2, zeds 1. The team fast-move across the street (fortunately the zed in the road is facing the other way) and into Gilligan’s Tavern, where they find – three vampires?!? More High Rise to Hell stuff, and this time I decide to redraw and get four zeds.

Naturally, Wannabe panics and fires, drawing two more zeds. Flack kicks one zombie OOF, Hardcase kills another, the third knocks down Pugh who rolls boxcars on his Recover From Knock Down test and is Obviously Dead. Oh no! Continuing the roll of extreme luck, Wannabe kills the final zed.

The team takes a Man Down test as they react to the loss of Pugh. Flack, as a star, can choose his result and passes 2d6. The rest get the benefit of Flack’s leader die; Hardcase rolls 2, 3, 3 and passes 2d6; he carries on. Wannabe rolls 5, 4, 3 and Runs Away, so he is removed from the table.

FZ199-05

TURN 5

Activation: Flack 3, zeds 4. Only the zed in Gilligan’s activates, as none of the others can see a human. It’s already in melee, and Flack kills again, clubbing it viciously with his rifle until Hardcase pulls him off.

"He’s gone, Captain. He’s gone."

Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Flack composes himself. Scanning the area, he can see, or knows of, over 20 zombies, and there’s only him and Hardcase left. Time to go.

"Right," Flack says, with the merest hint of a catch in his voice. "Follow me," and the pair of them fast-move off the board.

AFTERMATH

Wannabe rolls 3, 3 vs Rep 2 for After The Battle recovery; he never makes it back to camp. The team never find out what happened to him, but given his flaky Rep it’s not likely to be anything good.

Hardcase and Flack roll to see if they lose Rep as a result of failure, but neither does. They have both lost men before, and no doubt will lose them again.

The rest of the crew reflect on whether to stay with Flack once he breaks the news about Wannabe and Pugh; not his best day in command ever. Flack himself is rolling 5d6 for Rep, an additional 1d6 as he is a Born Leader, but -1d6 as he lost a man this trip. He scores 4 successes (rolls of 1-3).

Dibble is not rolling to leave the group any more. Hardcase rolls 5d6, -2d6 because he has been with Flack for over 6 months now, for a total of 3d6; he rolls no successes and is no longer rolling to leave the group. Pugh rolls similarly and gets 2 successes; again Flack has at least twice as many successes, so Pugh becomes a permanent member.

REFLECTIONS

That was a big, ugly failure. I used 26 zombies and 4 humans, and the game lasted about 90 minutes. The tactical lesson is not to shoot at zeds if you can possibly avoid it, but you can’t always, especially if you have a low Rep team member.

The two card decks work very well; the risks and rewards deck in particular saves a lot of time, and now I want to use it for Savage Worlds as well (it was the vampires and casters wot dun it, officer).

Based on the movement ratings, the recommended board layout is equivalent to a board around 40" x 48", and based on my progress in this game would take me 3-4 hours to clear, which is more than I have available in a typical session; I shall switch to one card per built-up board section, which is a good match for what I get when using terrain, and see how that goes – I can always add more cards later. (As an aside, I personally think a ground scale of one inch to six feet is about right for ATZ, in which case to scale my local coffee shop is about 4” by 6”, my usual office is around 8” by 10” and a typical house is probably 4” by 4”, so the city deck is about right, actually; a couple of buildings per board section in a built-up area.)

Considering they are little plastic men and lists of numbers on an index card, I was surprisingly touched when they pulled together more tightly than ever after losing Pugh.

It’s all about the story.

STATUS AT Z+200

  • Capt. Flack: Rep 5*, Pep 4, Sav 3, Born Leader, Initiative. Body armour, assault rifle, binoculars.
  • Pugh: Rep 5, Pep 2, Sav 3. Body armour, assault rifle, pistol.
  • Dibble: Rep 4, Pep 2, Sav 3. Body armour, assault rifle, pistol.
  • Hardcase: Rep 5, Pep 3, Sav 4. Body armour, assault rifle, SMG, goggles, backpack.
  • Group: Land Rover, 3 Food, 0 Fuel.
  • Area: 16 Body Armour, 59 Food, 29 Fuel, 53 Luxury Items, 18 Medical Supplies, 41 Weapons.

Is Your Journey Really Necessary?

We interrupt our scheduling programming to answer a question from Umberto Pignatelli (ciao, Umberto!), who wanted to know whether so much detailed world building is necessary to run Traveller.

The short answer is “No”. The longer answer, at least my longer answer, goes like this…

Traveller is a child of its time, namely the late 1970s and early 1980s, back when the Old School was the New School. Original D&D had been available for about three years, if you knew where to look for it, which in 1977 meant Games Workshop in Hammersmith (yes, that Games Workshop, but pre-Warhammer) or a couple of other places in equally seedy sidestreets.

In those days, the GM was expected to fill in the gaps in the rules and create his setting from scratch, himself. That was a natural result of where RPGs came from; initially they were written by, and for, tabletop wargamers, who were used to doing that and had all kinds of tricks for it, mostly spread by word of mouth as I recall. RPGs then were all sandboxes; the GM had to generate material for everywhere the players might go and everything they might do, because until the players sat down nobody – not even them – was sure what they would do next. This meant that games had to have random tables for things like encounters, which you’ll notice have largely disappeared from the current generation of RPGs.

After a year or two, games companies realised that one of the big obstacles to starting a game – and therefore, indirectly, to selling their products – was the amount of time, effort and imagination the GM had to put into generating the setting before anyone could play; at that stage, the only generally-available RPG with a setting was Empire of the Petal Throne. And thus setting books (and eventually adventure paths, which are a different answer to the same problem) were born; in the case of Traveller, the first published adventure – the Kinunir, in 1979 – had several pages of setting material in it, a pregenerated subsector with a map and some vague hints about the Imperium. Soon after, Supplement 3: The Spinward Marches, was released, and then things kind of snowballed.

The Rules As Written assume that you will generate at least one subsector for the players to adventure in, maybe 30-40 worlds. When you’re familiar with the rules, that takes about an afternoon to do, maybe longer if you want to draw a nice map, and then as much time thinking about backstory and plots as you need. (As an aside, a number of GMs went crazy and generated hundreds or thousands of star systems, but those campaigns tended to be stillborn, crushed under the weight of their own statistics.)

One of the beauties of this approach is that you can run a campaign with no GM, especially if you have a Free Trader starship, because that gives you a spine to build the rest of the game around – trading. A group of us did that for a while with a crew of scouts; the mission was to explore a subsector, and we diced up each world as we arrived, then either took it in turn to answer questions as they arose, or used reaction tests to answer them, almost a primitive version of Mythic.

But there are other ways, ways that don’t need so much prep time; it depends on the kind of game you want to run. Here are some I’ve tried:

  • You can make stuff up. Traveller’s world generation rules are actually intended for the situation where you’ve run out of ideas, and you need another planet. Until you run out of ideas, you just allocate stats to match your vision of the world, and give it a concise write-up in the form of a Universal World Profile.
  • You can use one of the published settings.
  • You can use a setting from books, movies or TV. A lot of people did this, and in fact one of the stated aims of Traveller was to allow people to explore aspects of their favourite setting that hadn’t been covered in the source material.
  • You can limit the players to one world, if necessary by having their starship break down – now they’re stuck until they have enough money to fix it. (I have fond memories of a game like this that my brother-in-law ran, set in the universe of Andre Norton’s The Beast Master, which had a definite Wild West vibe.)
  • You can make all the worlds the same, so you only need one set of stats. This works well for a universe like C J Cherryh’s Alliance/Union novels, where most star systems have only a space station as a colony as there are few habitable worlds. (This is the gaming equivalent of early seasons of Stargate: SG-1; all planets look like the same stretch of Canadian forest.)
  • You can allocate worlds as you go. In my last Dark Nebula game, I stayed a couple of worlds ahead of the exploring PCs – wherever they went, I pulled the next world off the stack and that’s where they were. Then that got written into the GM’s notes as if it had always been there, and I generated a new one to replace it in the stack. I also had a “default” secondary system in case I ever ran out – that’s what every system looked like until somebody went there.

There’s another angle to this, though; Traveller tends to attract the kind of player or GM who enjoys generating worlds, or characters, or starships.

For the average Traveller GM, generating worlds isn’t a chore, it’s more like a solo mini-game within the main game.

Once More Into The Nebula

This year’s sci-fi campaign is gaining momentum now, after a certain amount of dithering over what rules and setting to use. Some of my previous groups have had firm ideas on what should be used, but the current players are very laid back about that, so I can use whatever I want.

THE RULES

Much as I love Classic Traveller, it has holes. Character generation is too random, there’s no levelling up to speak of, and the range and armour DMs for combat are too clunky. I could house-rule my way out of that, or we could learn a new game (say, Mongoose Traveller or Stars Without Number), but you know what, we’re already familiar with a game that will do the job, and that’s Savage Worlds. So there’s the core rules set.

There are things SW does not do well, mostly around setting generation; but that’s fine, because I have a setting in mind already.

THE SETTING

The Official Traveller Universe is too big and too detailed not to use, but by the same token I want to tweak the setting too; that and my affection for the Dark Nebula map have taken me away from the well-trodden paths, towards that region of space.

I’ve used the Nebula as a setting before, in the playtest campaign for my work on GURPS Traveller Alien Races 2 and 3, and I expect to have a couple of the same players. To avoid awkward questions and allow me to apply lessons learned in the intervening 15 years, I turn the clock back from 1105 or so Imperial to 3400 AD and the very start of the Aslan Border Wars. That’s during the Long Night, 650 years after the fall of the Rule of Man, so there’s a major difference – this game will have the feel of re-emerging into space after centuries of rebuilding, much like Stars Without Number or Traveller: The New Era, either or both of which may be mined for resources.

It also means the Solomani Confederation doesn’t necessarily have to be the Stalinist Nazi hybrid of the Official Traveller Universe; that’s 2,000 years in the future from the PCs’ viewpoint.

THE STARMAP

I promise I will eventually stop redrawing the map of the Nebula; but not today. I hope this will be the final version, although I admit it never has been before…

This version has the rescaling and rotation I normally apply, but I worked out how to do double star systems in Hexographer so added those back in. Doing that revealed that I could have a more authentic jump route network by moving a couple of worlds as well; since one of the conceits of the tweaked setting is that one can only move along jump routes, this has no effect.

dn06h

Worlds are colour-coded; red dots are homeworlds, blue ones are primary systems, orange are secondary, grey are tertiary. (Using dots for everything makes it easier to do the map key in MS Word for player handouts.)

Jump routes are in green; solid lines for charted ones, dotted lines for uncharted. Hyperspace jumps are only possible along charted routes; my rationalisation for this is that the map is a 2D representation of 3D space, so worlds that appear next to each other may be too far apart vertically to allow a jump; there is an explanation for the uncharted routes, which I’ll come back to later when I do some world writeups.

That means I can suppress the hex grid for clarity, since the players will never use the hexes. Then, the map looks like this:

dn06

The map uses the original 1980 terms for the interstellar states, Solomani Confederation and Aslanic Hierate; this is so that any Traveller-savvy players who join the campaign will immediately realise this is an alternate Traveller universe, not the official one.

THE CONFLICT

The period of tension and intrigue leading up to the First Aslan Border War is a great time for roleplaying adventures, the straight-up combat after war breaks out not so much, at least not for the players I have in mind. This is a good thing, because otherwise I would feel compelled to work out the war in detail – which naval squadron is in which system on what date, how long the Battle of Valka lasts and who is involved, that kind of thing – and the campaign would collapse under the weight of my notes.

So instead of using the Pacific War of 1941-45 as a real-world analogue, the campaign is going to be more like the 1930s, which will suit the pulpy feel of Savage Worlds very well.

THE PCS AND THE BASE WORLD

The PCs will be those from Back in Black; converting them to SW is a cinch because they are actually SW archetypes converted to CT.

None of them have a ship, or ship-related skills, so for the moment all I need to worry about is their base world; this is going to be Mizah, and I’ll look at that in the next post.

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.

Back in Black

Unexpectedly, I found myself running Classic Traveller again last weekend.

It happened like this; everyone who turned up for the family lunch was a gamer and a Firefly fan, we discussed the theory that Firefly is based on Joss Whedon’s game of Traveller, and then it seemed like a good idea to try out the game. I’m confident in playing CT off the cuff; I’ve been running it on and off for nearly 40 years now, and I can do it in my sleep.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I have, at some point.

I didn’t want to deflate their enthusiasm by taking them through the complex mini-game which is character generation, so I did a quick on-the-fly conversion of the archetypes in Savage Worlds (it’s just as easy going that way as they other, takes me less than a minute for each one) and let them pick the ones they wanted. So it was that we wound up with a party composed of a Marine and three Others:

  • Captain Joe "Cap’n Crunch" Williams, ex-Marine, hot-headed veteran of a war with “the space bugs”, who is AWOL and wanted for desertion.
  • Fromar the scientist.
  • Ms Posey Avril, retired pirate, whose pension represents the income from the gastropub franchise and doughnut shop she started to launder her ill-gotten gains, and who has taken her lucky gun “Elmira” out adventuring in search of more money (as she needs extensive dental work).
  • Lisa Andrews, healer with secret psionic powers.

I know. Roll with me on this.

THE HEIST

The party found themselves mustered out on Regina in search of work, and I dropped entry 15 from 76 Patrons on them; break into a corporate executive’s mansion, swap his prized US $1 purple postage stamp for a fake, and return the original to the patron (who was called Mr Johnson as a nod to everyone’s experience with Shadowrun). I also dragged out GDW’s Merc: 2000, which I keep around for the generic location plans, and used the Mansion and the Remote Estate for the target’s mansion.

After lengthy debate, the party hires sturdy mounts (which they decided were giant riding beetles, so now there are giant beetles on Regina) to case the joint, persuading their random police encounters (park rangers on grav belts) that they were tourists. Armed with knowledge of the general layout, they spend about 90 minutes brainstorming and discarding plans, until they settle on sealing themselves in crates and having themselves delivered by courier to the mansion while the boss was away on business.

We’re now about two hours in, and the only dice rolls necessary so far have been the check against law level for police harassment, and police reaction rolls to the PCs’ story. While they were discussing their approach, I discarded the rest of the situation and dreamed up a couple of plot twists.

Cautiously cutting their way out of the crates, they realise they are in a garage, under camera surveillance, with a  couple of air/rafts to hand. With a cunning plan and a couple of lucky Computer rolls, they gain access to the network via a cable under a workbench and set the cameras to loop yesterday’s surveillance. They realise the shortcomings of this, but it’s the best they can do. While the scientist dismounts the GPS and tracking devices from one of the air/rafts to give them a getaway vehicle, the others poke their heads out of the skylight and observe the unexpected return of the target and a couple of other suits.

(I know, but they do not, that the business trip was a diversion to cover a meeting with other corporate types about insider trading.)

Fromar ransacks the garage, A-Team style, and comes out with a long list of items including glue and a nailgun. Captain Williams then leads the motley crew stealthily across the garden to the stables, where a pair of riding dinosaurs (actually poni, the six-legged brontosauri in the Scout Service logo) are minding their own business in stalls. The party now shoots them with the nailgun, causing them to stampede out of the stables past the mansion.

With the occupants thus distracted, Our Heroes move up to the mansion and gain entrance through the rear door, finding themselves in the kitchen with the catering staff, who are preparing cocktails and canapes for the meeting upstairs. Swiftly discarding their plans of violence, they pass themselves off as frightened delivery men, looking for somewhere to hide from the dinosaur stampede. Manufacturing an excuse, they check the mansion plans they found online earlier and rule out the entire ground floor, deciding that the stamp must be either in the master bedroom or the office, then scuttle upstairs towards those rooms.

At the top of the stairs they find the three suits, but given that there are stampeding dinosaurs outside and one of the bodyguards has panicked and opened fire on them, it seems logical that the suits are looking out at the carnage from the balcony. Thus it is that the party manage to sneak up behind them, intending to knock them unconscious (by this point they have forgotten they are supposed to get in and out without being noticed). Using Hands at Close range (+2) against non-combatant NPCs (+3) in no armour (+1) means they can’t miss, and they start to understand how deadly CT combat is. However, none of them do enough damage to put down their targets.

It’s at this point they notice the large, newly-arrived, black air/raft outside, with the cargo doors sliding back, and the men in black ski masks inside with auto rifles pointing at the group on the balcony. Williams, Avril and Andrews grab the suits and drag them away from the window towards the stairs, while Fromar dodges away into the office, where he sees the stamp in a nitrogen-filled display case.

(Beyond thinking someone wants the suits dead, I have no idea what’s going on here. One of the joys of sandbox play for the GM is you can do stuff like this and leave the players to come up with a reason for it.)

This leaves everyone except Fromar in the beaten zone for the auto rifles, and Posey, Andrews and one of the suits are hit and knocked out while all six are tumbling down the stairs. Thinking quickly, Williams browbeats the two suits still standing into helping him drag the wounded into one of the servants’ quarters.

Fromar smashes the case, reasoning that any investigation will blame the firefight, and swaps the stamps before picking up one of the suits’ tablet PCs and escaping through the office window. While in the garage earlier, he had thoughtfully set up the air/raft’s autopilot for remote operation, and now summons it to the windows by the servants’ quarters. Everyone piles in, while outside the ski masks are abseiling down from their air/raft and finishing off the staff and bodyguards.

The autopilot starts heading back to the starport, but the black air/raft turns in pursuit. Fortunately, one of the suits can fly, and seizes the controls, swooping into nearby woods where they might evade pursuit. Unfortunately, he gets shot in the back of the head and dies. Fromar takes control and pulls back on the joystick to avoid crashing into the trees; he can’t fly, but anyone knows that will pull the nose up. Everyone falls out of the air/raft except Williams and one of the suits, who manage to grab onto something, and Fromar, who knew this was coming. Their pursuers take advantage of this to start walking auto rifle fire down from the nose of the air/raft into the passenger seats. Fromar wrestles wildly with the controls, but has no idea what he is doing and winds up flipping the air/raft broadside on and spinning it along the long axis. Everyone jumps clear as the two air/rafts collide and explode.

(This saves me from revealing the third plot twist, which is that one of the hired killers at the mansion is an old war buddy of Williams’. I’ll save that for later.)

A few minutes later, as the wounded recover consciousness, the party explains that they are members of a super-secret counter-terrorist unit, acting on a tipoff to protect the suits. Leaving the suits where the park rangers can find them, they vanish into the night and repair to the starport to lick their wounds.

Mal Reynolds would’ve been proud of them.

REFLECTIONS

Classic Traveller, even the 1977 edition, still does the job. It’s noticeable that the players came up with detailed backstories and personalities with no Edges, Hindrances, Ads/Disads or whatever you want to call them. You really don’t need rules for that stuff, you know.

Play is very liberating once people get used to the idea that it’s all about player skill, the character statistics are largely incidental, and going off-piste is not only permitted but actually expected and encouraged; everyone focussed on the story and their cunning plans.

The party psionic, forgot she had psi powers and didn’t use them. I don’t know why this happens in my CT games, but it almost always does, whoever plays the psion; it’s one reason I’m relaxed about allowing them in the game.

None of us felt the need to pull out any figures, whereas with Savage Worlds or Shadowrun we always do that instinctively.

I’d intended this to be a one-off, but the players loved the speed of play and freedom of action, got really attached to their characters, and they want to carry on with them. In addition, all of them want to try Original D&D as well now, with a wilderness adventure. I’ll probably use Labyrinth Lord; OD&D as written is just too disorganised. So I guess 2014 is shaping up to be the Year of Retro Gaming.

One of the group, who runs a Shadowrun game with about a dozen players and has been complaining about how long it takes them to do anything, took the battered 1977 rulebooks away to read, saying he would try converting his campaign to CT to speed it up.

All of this just reinforces my long-held belief that the rules don’t matter. We had just as much fun in the 1970s, and last weekend, with the simplest of rules and scenarios, as we do with any current RPG.

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.

Shadows of Keron: A Retrospective

It’s time to call this one. Time of death: April 2014.

I have enough material to keep running the game for another year, maybe two, but with several of the group dealing with serious illness in the family, two running after a new baby, one off to university and two off to Japan, the best I can hope for is a long hiatus. All the same, it’s been fun while it lasted, and a real success. My only regret is that it petered out, rather than ending on the kind of slam-bang, white-knuckle high note I’d hoped for; but such is life.

If you count the city of Irongrave where the PCs began, which was absorbed into the Dread Sea Dominions once Beasts & Barbarians captured my imagination, this campaign has lasted about four years of real time; one of the longest I’ve ever run.

The game introduced half-a-dozen new people to role-playing, and four of them still play on a regular basis; that’s a win, right there. I converted the whole group to Savage Worlds – win – and they converted me to Shadowrun – win. I got to know Piotr Korys and Umberto Pignatelli – win.

Over the course of the campaign, the PCs have grown from their lowly beginnings at Novice rank to the edge of Legendary. They have travelled across the Dominions from the Independent Cities to the Troll Mountains to the Ivory Savannah. They have looted tombs, toppled kingdoms and slain a god. They have upset the balance of power in the Dominions for centuries to come by gifting both the Ascaian Amazons and the Smith-Priests of Hulian the secret of steel-making.

What now for our heroes?

The Warforged intends seizing control of the abandoned City of the Winged God, where he plans to create a new race of warforged and take over the world – for the greater good of all, of course. (It always starts like that, doesn’t it? Then there are dissenters, then the Blast powers and frying pans come out, and the screaming starts…)

Nessime has been instructed by the Smith-Priests to make her way to Jalizar, there to help contain its ancient evils.

Gutz’ present whereabouts are unknown; but the party’s jewels are safe with him, wherever he and Maximus the warhorse are – at least until he finds a tavern with dancing-girls…

“When it’s over, when it’s done – let it go.” – The Bangles, Let It Go