Hearts of Stone, Episode 1: Inn Trouble

It’s the evening before the Caravan of Two Lanterns departs Old Town bound for Concord, and the PCs are gathered in The Cauldron, a caravanserai inn on the outskirts of Old Town which is one of the few with ceilings high enough for humans – Old Town is dominated by halflings. As is natural over ale and food, those who will be companions for a few days exchange the usual questions; who are you, why are you going to Concord, that kind of thing.

The Fox is a well-dressed human, clearly of some breeding, and carrying two rapiers. He explains that he is an agent of the Archmage, travelling on Imperial business. He further states that Ssh’ta, the wood elf archer, asked him to tell “Dave” that he isn’t dead, he’s just fed up of high elves and wants some time to himself.

Soreth says, “I’m a dragonborn. What are YOU gonna do about it?” She orders a raw steak, and shortly begins berating the waiters. “How long does it take to cook a raw steak, eh?”

Kowalski mumbles that he is a dwarf, wanted by dwarven police due to a misunderstanding over the ownership of some axes, and he finds it convenient to travel for a while.

“Dave”, who is actually a female dark elf, identifies herself cheerfully and says she is travelling with her companion, Casila. Casila says nothing, but looks withdrawn, brooding and somewhat the worse for wear, shrinking away from “Dave” a little but nonetheless sitting with her.

Hayes, who wandered into the kitchen for a while and returns munching on something, says that he doesn’t know who he is, who they are, where he is or what he’s doing there, or why he has a ticket to Concord. By his tone and mannerisms he clearly has a lot of repressed anger. X7-09 introduces itself as a construct following Hayes, who it has tentatively designated its new master. “Master repairs X7-09,” it states, although Hayes shows no sign of remembering this.

The innkeeper informs them that there are three others booked on the caravan, but he has been told not to expect them tonight. He confirms the Fox’s information on Ssh’ta, and goes on to say that Boris has been arrested – he doesn’t know the details – and a very good-looking lady bard, whose name he doesn’t know, is trying to persuade the sheriff and the plaintiffs to drop the charges.

At this point, screams are heard from outside, and the party grabs its weapons and charges out, “Dave” telling Casila to stay put. Emerging into the late afternoon, they find themselves facing the stables and a squad of drow spider cavalry who are on the stable roof and charge down into the courtyard, leaving three of their number on the roof. The party shakes out into a rough skirmish line and prepares to receive the charge.

A short, furious melee erupts. Ordinary drow cavalrymen in leather with spears are, it turns out, no match for tooled-up adventurers, even when riding giant spiders. Initially, Hayes shield-bashes a charging spider, forcing its rider to fall forward across its head. X7-09 seems hesitant at first, but hacks doughtily away, and follows Hayes when he breaks contact and moves around the drow’s right flank. “Dave” moves up the stairs outside the inn to get a better line of sight, calling something in drow – the assailants ignore her – and shooting her bow at the rooftop officers. Soreth is bitten by a spider, but shrugs off the poison, and hits it so hard that chitin and ichor splatter all over Kowalski, killing it outright. Kowalski fails to hit the spider in front of him, which is not being at all co-operative. The Fox, meanwhile, taunts the spearman who missed him: “My grandmother can handle a spear better than that!”

Hayes lines up on the rearmost drow and charges to shield-bash that one too; it staggers backwards, trips over a dead spider, and hurtles towards Kowalski, who barely manages to dodge this unusal incoming missile. Hayes then orders X7-09 up onto the roof to seize one of the drow officers and bring her to him; it obeys, runs to the stable wall, and scrambles up it. The Fox runs his opponent through with a devastating thrust. “Dave” moves up adjacent to that duel on the inn roof, and fires down into the drow’s spider, skewering it; unfortunately it is flattened to the ground, and Soreth’s mighty sweep misses it as a result. The stable-roof drow gang up on X7-09, but fail to inflict any damage on it.

“Is that a longsword?” Hayes wonders aloud, glancing at the fight on the roof. “They’re worth a bit, they are.”

By this point only one drow, and no spiders, are left alive in the courtyard; one of the three officers on the roof barks an order, and they start to fall back. As the survivor in the courtyard turns to run, he is hacked down by Kowalski and Soreth, despite cries from Hayes to take him alive for interrogation. X7-09 manages to push one of the withdrawing officers off the stable roof; she rolls with the impact with the parapet, but is severely injured and winded by the fall; things only get worse when Hayes runs up and jumps on her in a vertical shield bash. He quickly disarms her and hands the weapons to X7-09, then ties her up. “Dave” considers a called shot to the drow’s head, but instead opts to run down the stairs and charge her, screaming something in drow. The Fox tries to trip her and misses, Kowalski tries a rugby tackle and misses, but X7-09 steps forward and grabs her, hoisting the struggling drow off the ground while Hayes berates and threatens her.

Taking advantage of the confusion, their prisoner – bound hand and foot and much the worse for wear – crawls off into the stables, looking for something to cut herself free with, and planning to escape up the ladder to the roof and away. Unfortunately Hayes notices and follows her into the stables. No-one can see what happens next, but the sound is much like a very large bar of soap in a sock hitting flesh.

The party gazes around them, panting in the setting sun. They have possession of the field of battle, a dozen or so mixed drow and giant spider corpses, and an unconscious drow prisoner. Someone says, “Shouldn’t we check on Casila?” – and all eyes turn towards the inn door.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN

This was an unusual session for me because my usual groups are happy to share info on their character sheets, and these players prefer to keep that to themselves. Since at least one occasionally reads the blog, I am limiting the report to what all PCs would know – there was a lot of secret in-game chat, or “whispering” as Roll20 calls it.

You may recognise Casila, and if so you probably know what major villain I’m building the story arc around; no spoilers in the comments please!

I raided my hard drive for counters and maps, and set those up in advance; that paid off handsomely. Actually, I spent so much time preparing Roll20 during the week (including changing the starting adventure at the last minute to fit in with the PCs’ icon relationships and uniques) that a few minutes before the session start I realised I’d forgotten to prepare the caravan. No matter, a quick rummage through the hard drive later the Caravan of Two Lanterns emerges from my Beasts & Barbarians stash. A caravan is a caravan, right? After some thought of how to introduce the party to each other and explain why they’re travelling together, I challenged the players to do it: Your character is in Old Town and travelling to Concord – why? You’ve seen their answers above.

LESSONS LEARNED

Roll20 works very well indeed, especially with a tech-savvy group. This looks likely to be a regular weekly session, which will be great but will mean that reviews and solo games move onto the back burner for a while.

I spent some time trying to add various NPCs and monsters into Roll20’s Journal, until I realised that isn’t necessary because their statblocks are so simple; this session I ran just with the basic die roller and tokens, and next time I will have a dummy PC called “GM” with token macros for rolls that have a wild die; I considered setting up macros for damage dice as well, but really, how hard is it to type “/r 2d6!”? For some reason the giant spiders weren’t very giant, next time I will create one, resize by hand, and clone it. It’s tempting to go nuts adding handouts, NPCs and monsters, but let’s see how far we get without first; less is more.

As usual, I forgot to award several bennies when they were deserved, and I also spent too much time looking up PC stats – a short cheat sheet is needed, which experience tells me needs their Charisma modifier, Parry, Toughness, and Hindrances.

Giant spiders aren’t something I’ve used much in the past, so I don’t think I played them very well tactically. No matter, plenty more where they came from…

Beyond the Comfort Zone

“Senescence begins when growth ends.”

Next weekend sees the start of a new campaign, and it has some unusual aspects for me.

The group will be geographically dispersed and playing over the internet. The plan is to use Obsidian Portal for reference (the campaign front page is here), and run sessions with a combination of Roll20 and Discord – we’re avoiding the Roll20 voice client because everyone except me is already familiar with Discord and uses it for videogames.

The campaign has a story arc, which is something I haven’t tried to do for nearly 20 years now.

The setting is 13th Age, which is a lot less gritty and a lot more gonzo than I normally work with.

The group is going to be quite big – 7-10 players compared to my usual four. Hopefully Savage Worlds as the core game engine will allow me to cope – I didn’t feel like taking on new rules as well, though I have taken on board the Uniques and Icon Relationships, which all the players love and have already started twisting the background in unexpected directions.

Feh. How hard can it be? I’ll keep you posted.

Sgt. Pepper

It was twenty years ago today,
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play,
They’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile.
– The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

As best I can calculate, today is the 40th anniversary of my first tabletop RPG session, in which I played a 1st level wizard in a game of White Box D&D in a pub in Oxford with fellow members of the Tolkien Society. Good times, then and now, and to quote the Grateful Dead as well, “what a long, strange trip it’s been”.

If you want a professional’s view of the last four decades of RPGs, take a listen to this, and read DM David’s reflections on “the end of lonely fun“.

Mike Mearls’ description in the podcast of “not playing the game you wanted to play” resonated with me, and combined with the usual end-of-summer-holiday weltschmerz has me considering all manner of crazy schemes, a kind of gaming mid-life crisis I suppose. Mearls’ argument is that there are gaps between RPG sessions when you want to play but can’t, and while gamers used to fill those gaps by (say) reading splatbooks or designing new vehicles, since the advent of videogames people use that downtime to play something else on their PC or phone. Thus their gaming time and dollars are going into other games, not the supplemental materials for their main tabletop RPG they used to buy in the 1980s and 1990s.

The challenge Mearls mentions is how to keep D&D relevant and interesting in that environment, and it looks like the answer is what Gary Ray calls “D&D Stable IP Edition” and the videogame industry calls “maintenance mode”; nobody’s working on the core game engine any more, and new content packs (for 5E, campaign books) are released just often enough to keep things ticking over.

The challenge I see is how to keep campaign setup time for a homebrew or published campaign comparable to the time it takes to download a new game from Steam, and I address that challenge with Savage Worlds.

Meanwhile, this line of thought makes me realise I’m still addressing gaps between sessions the old way, reading about and preparing for the next game – making a hobby of not playing the game I want to play. Solo gaming, generating setting material and so on are displacement activities, things I do because I can’t play what I want as much as I’d like. Food for thought there.

As to the weltschmerz-induced crazy schemes, experience teaches that the urge will pass in time.

The Attitude of the Knife

“Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife – chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: ‘Now it’s complete, because it’s ended here.’” – Frank Herbert, Dune.

I recently had an opportunity to set up a new face to face group, composed partly of old Shadows of Keron players and partly of Nick’s Stars Without Number group; so of course I jumped at it, and is my wont I sought player preferences. After several rounds of debate and voting, they settled on “a high fantasy campaign but we don’t mind what the rules are”. My old players didn’t express a preference, trusting me to produce something they will enjoy; Nick’s players wanted a change of pace from space opera, but rejected the picaresque Conan vibe of Beasts & Barbarians.

High fantasy implies a story arc, a struggle between good and evil, and a group of PCs on the Hero’s Journey who are essentially good guys; most of the players are Chaotic Neutral, though, so I’m not sure how well that will sit with them. The campaign will be characterised by infrequent sessions with an unpredictable player mix, and might close after a few sessions with the story arc incomplete. This is why I generally prefer the picaresque approach, emulating a series of connected short stories rather than a roman-fleuve.

When I started gaming, you played OD&D (because that’s all there was) and you wrote your own setting or used your favourite fantasy novels as the background (because those were the available options). Now, though? Even limiting myself to high fantasy, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of RPGs, many of which have multiple published settings. I might pick the wrong one, leaving the best forever undiscovered; but if I don’t make a decision, we will never play at all, and suboptimal gaming is better than no gaming. I could play half a dozen guest games and pick the best one; but ain’t nobody got time for dat, so let’s crack on.

Rules first. Personally, I think D&D is the best choice for high fantasy, and I do like the look of 5th Edition. However, with over 100 pages in the free basic rules, and nearly 1,000 in the three core books, which would cost over £75, I have to ask myself: Is 5th Edition enough of an improvement over what I play now to make the cost and effort of changing to it worthwhile? Realistically, no, however shiny it looks, so I might as well stay with my go-to RPG, Savage Worlds, which is roughly 1/10 the page count and cost in both free basic and full fat versions. This does have the advantages of being light, portable, and very tolerant of characters with different experience levels in the same party, and I expect some players will attend sessions more often than others. 5E goes on the Bucket List, of which more towards the end of the year.

Setting next. This was a surprisingly difficult choice, but in the end I went for 13th Age. The SF experience that culminated in Collateral Damage has shown me that the less setting information the GM and players have to familiarise themselves with, the better; the icon relationships and uniques in 13th Age will allow me to tailor an emergent setting and story arc to the players’ desires, as telegraphed by their choices in that regard, without requiring any of us to assimilate a ton of setting information first. 13th Age also has the sort of gonzo fantasy elements that will appeal both to the older players (who are somewhat jaded by now) and the younger ones (who were raised on anime and more or less expect things like a cloud city with a clockwork ecology).

Other options considered and rejected, at least for this flight: 50 Fathoms (doesn’t enthuse me enough), Jalizar (not enough of what the group wants to see in the game; I could fit in elves and dwarves, but I draw the line at the earnestly-requested flying castles), Ptolus (too big and too much clockpunk), Spears of the Dawn (too many zombies for one player, diverges too far from Tolkienian tropes for others). Maybe later.

Is there a better option that I haven’t considered? Quite possibly, but how long would it take me to find it? Time’s winged chariot is getting noisy back there, and we’re all better served by picking something and running with it.

Lessons Learned

I care about what the rules and setting are a good deal more than any of the likely players, so next time, I should just pick whatever I think will give the best game and get on with it, rather than putting it to a vote. Dithering has cost us a couple of sessions already.

Review: Interstellar Overthruster

This is a 63 page A5-or-so booklet from Albatross Press, written by Jed McClure and illustrated by Ezra Clayton Daniels. As it says on the cover, it is a set of hexcrawl rules for uncharted space. As an added bonus, I’ll also talk about the matching campaign seed, A Star for Queen Zoe, same format but only 35 pages.

Interstellar Overthruster

This attracted my attention because of how it’s intended to be used; the idea is that you generate your campaign’s sector of space on the fly, at the table, using dice, hex paper and other stationery supplies – you need a couple of different coloured pens and something to colour in the hexes as you go.

Now, be warned, creating random sectors is all IO does, so you will need another RPG for characters, combat both personal and space, chases, and whatnot. As written, IO assumes that you’re using something Old School or a retroclone – Traveller, Thousand Suns, Stars Without Number, that kind of thing – but really anything will work, so long as the mini-game that is IO can be swapped for any space exploration rules your RPG might have.

IO’s approach has several advantages. First, the GM has minimal prep work; at most, you need a homeworld and a reason for the PCs to be exploring – A Star for Queen Zoe addresses both, more of that below.

Second, neither the GM nor the players have any setting to learn, except maybe the campaign seed. The rest of the setting emerges in play. (It is assumed a previous interstellar empire collapsed, and the PCs’ homeworld is just re-emerging into space – a standard SF trope.)

However, if you use it as designed, the GM has to be comfortable with improvising plotlines – nobody has any idea what’s coming next.

At the table, exploration proceeds in three phases. First, the PCs scan adjacent hexes – this tells the players whether there is a system present, which matters as you can jump into an empty hex but not out again, and what zones the hex is in – more on this later as it is a cool innovation.

Second, the PCs pick a system, hyperjump there, and scan it to find what planets and lifeforms are present. This is based on a percentile die roll against a table with a full 100 different entries; as I understand the rules you have a traditional 8 x 10 hexgrid and roughly a one in three chance of a system in each hex, so you might reasonably expect to generate a number of sectors before things get repetitive. Each planet also gets a percentile roll on a table with a full 100 entries – much of the book is taken up with these tables.

Third, if the second step detected intelligent life and the PCs decide to land, they find out about local culture, technology, trade and so on. Intelligent life may be low-tech locals, whether human or alien, or it may be an outpost of another pocket empire. This is done with die rolls on half a dozen other tables, as is traditional. Finally there is another full 100 table of cosmic strangeness – the intention here is that every habitable world has something unusual and interesting about it. To an extent, these are scenario seeds, and pretty much the only part of the book that I would be cautious about letting the players see; the rest of this step could be replaced by normal world generation from the SF RPG of your choice.

There is an element of resource management to encourage the players to explore worlds that lack an obvious reward (“we need to stop and forage, we’re almost out of food”).

I mentioned zones. I’ve seen random generation of starmaps on the fly before – one of the Classic Traveller supplements had a mod for this, for example – but zones are new so far as I know. When you scan a hex, you may discover that it is part of a zone, which may be a natural phenomenon such as a nebula, a state controlled by another spacefaring race, or an area of weird energy. (You colour in zones as you scan, to keep track of what’s where, and a single hex can potentially be in several zones.) Normally I would generate all the systems in the sector, then place empires and other zones manually, but this system lets you create them on the fly, thus reducing prep time.

A Star for Queen Zoe

You could just say “you lot are the crew of a scout ship and your mission is to explore this new sector” and not worry about their homeworld, but you do need some motivation for the PCs to be exploring. You could always make up your own, which is why this is a separate booklet, but A Star for Queen Zoe details Essex, a possible homeworld for the PCs, characterised by multiple competing states, 18th century technology (limited by available materials more than knowledge), and the recent discovery of a functional starship. Queen Zoe finds herself in urgent need of an offworld colony and commissions her (hopefully) loyal PCs to find one for her, thus providing the motivation for exploration. The plotline will be familiar if you’ve read King David’s Spaceship by Jerry Pournelle.

The booklet mentions the usefulness of political developments at home while the PCs are offworld, so at first I expected something like Stars Without Numbers’ faction rules to move that forward, and was a little disappointed not to see them; but they aren’t strictly necessary.

Coda

Put these two together with the SF RPG of your choice, and you have a campaign ready to go, no prep needed beyond creating characters. That’s very attractive, and worth a tryout at some point; but as you will see next time, I have other fish to fry for the moment…

Arion, Episode 21: Boarding Action

Continuing the simulation theme and exploring another part of the Fringe Space rules I haven’t tried, let’s take a look at the abstract boarding system. These are optional rules for use if you don’t want to play out the boarding action as a Confrontation encounter on the tabletop.

Let’s suppose that our simulated Navy cutter had won the dogfight in episode 20, reduced the Dolphin’s Thrust to zero, won the next round on the Dogfight table, and opted to board. This takes us from p. 52 to p. 86 where the Boarding table lives.

Let’s further suppose that both sides are at full Hull and bonus dice. First I check whether the Navy will use their bonus dice; on a roll of 6 on one die, they elect not to. Each captain now rolls (Rep + Hull) d6; Arion rolls (5 + 3) d6 = 66561315 for 3 successes, and the Navy get (3 + 4) d6 = 2312351 for 6 successes, plus an extra d6 for having a Cutter’s Marine Detachment (3 = +1 success), plus one success for being a military vessel. Total: Arion 3, Navy 8 – a fairly convincing win for the Navy.

(On average luck, Arion would have got 4 successes and the Navy 5 – still a win for the Navy but by a smaller margin.)

The Navy force the crew of the Dolphin to surrender, and we go to the Terms of Surrender table. Here we roll against the boarder’s Rep (3); 2d6 (usual) +1d6 (military boarders) -1d6 (crew resisted boarding) = 2d6 overall. A score of 11 = pass 2d6; as the Dolphin is not a military vessel, the boarders take all cargo and valuables, but leave the crew and passengers alive and allow them to leave with their ship.

AFTERMATH

Again, a simulation, so no increasing or decreasing Rep rolls.

REFLECTIONS

Again, a fast, simple set of rules, easy to use, and no requirement for figures or terrain.

Had I been playing to win, rather than to test out the rules, I would either have played this as a Confrontation, where Arion’s Rep and attributes would offer more of an advantage, or have burned bonus dice on the boarding table roll – two, I think, to offset the Navy’s statistical advantage, but with dice rolls like that it probably wouldn’t have helped.

Interestingly, if you think you are going to lose the boarding action, you are better off if the boarding captain has a high Rep – low Rep ones are more likely to panic and kill you all, there was a 25% chance of that in this example.

Next time, on the Arioniad: Back to the actual story…

Review: Star Wars – the Edge of the Empire

I only bought this because it’s what the WFRP3 group I play in wants to do next, but actually it’s better than I expected. It’s 440 pages of full-colour hardback rulebook from Fantasy Flight Games, and my heart sinks at the thought of doing a detailed review, so you’ll have to settle for a capsule summary. I will note that at £40 this is easily the most expensive gaming item I have bought – or intend to buy – this year, and it would have been worse if my FLGS had had the dice in stock as well.

In a nutshell, this is what WFRP3 should have been; all of the irritating little cards and tokens (and the big slipcase box you need to keep them in) are gone, in favour of a more traditional rulebook and character sheet. The game is set in the Star Wars universe around the time of Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and player characters are fringer rogues – smugglers, bounty hunters, mercenaries and so on. Character generation is point-buy, and although I haven’t played it in anger yet, it looks like character development will focus on picking items from a talent tree; there aren’t many skills, and characteristics are very, very expensive.

The custom dice are still there, and whenever you try to do something you build a pool of dice of various types and colours depending on your characteristics and skills, circumstances, gear, what your opponent is like, how hard the task is and so on. You roll the pool, take note of which symbols cancel out which other symbols, and if you still have at least one success symbol, you succeed. The other surviving symbols give information to inspire how the scene is narrated; you might succeed but suffer side effects, or you might fail in a really lucky way. The dice pools look like they will be smaller than in WFRP3, where a dozen or more dice in the pool are not uncommon; characteristics in EotE are much harder to improve, skill dice replace characteristic dice rather than being added to the pool, and some talents act to remove disadvantageous dice from the pool; so 5-6 dice seems more likely. This means that characteristics are more important in EotE, as they limit how much skill you can apply to a given roll.

The various combat action cards of WFRP3 are replaced by a simple rule, that each success symbol grants +1 damage. That wasn’t so hard, was it FFG? Combat is, if anything, even more abstract than WFRP3 – sort of Classic Travellerish, with range bands. This is a shame, as it suggests they won’t bring out any pre-painted miniatures to support it.

I’m not going to talk about the setting. Watch the movies, it’s more fun that way. You know better than to watch Episodes I-III, right?

CONCLUSIONS

I can’t help feeling there is a better way to introduce narrative hooks than a dozen expensive custom dice, but it’s a tight little system and it ought to play well at the table. Too complicated for me to run, and I would like the rules to be available as a PDF, but a decent effort on the whole, and it’ll get played, which is more than can be said for most things I review.