Witness Protection RPGs

“Retma in his caution, Estelle in her compassion, Dee in her fear all would be giving birth to some version of the standard model; but Amalfi had driven the standard model until all the bolts had come out of it, and was so tired at even the thought of it that he could hardly bring himself to breathe.”
– James Blish, The Triumph of Time

Here’s another thought experiment along the lines of Desert Island RPGs: Witness Protection RPGs.

While that was about choosing a limited number of items to be cast away on a desert island with, this one is about starting over.

Here’s the premise… On your way home tonight, you’re taken into witness protection. You literally can’t go home again; you’re given a new name, relocated to a new town, and can’t contact any of your family or friends again, because it’s too dangerous for you and for them. You can still enjoy gaming, but you can’t do anything that could be traced back to your old life.

QUESTIONS

  1. What games that you currently own would you buy again? How would you change them to be new, exciting, and unrecognisable?
  2. What new ones would you buy and gamemaster, or hope to play?
  3. How would you find new players?

MY ANSWERS

Nobody who has seen my usual level of tweaking and mashups would suspect me as long as I stick to the Rules As Written and just a couple of games. Especially if neither of them are Traveller.

  1. This one is easy. I would repurchase Savage Worlds Deluxe and Beasts & Barbarians, and possibly Stars Without Number. I would run those exactly as written, casting aside my reservations about things like starting at Seasoned rank.
  2. This one is harder, because it has to be a game I haven’t tried before; but I’m tempted by Night’s Black Agents, because it rocks and I don’t normally do horror.
  3. I’d try Google Hangouts and Roll20 for online gaming.

CODA

Tell me about your answers, please; I’m curious. Then, look at them – carefully. They’re telling you how to break out of your comfort zone and reinvigorate your gaming.

What’s stopping you?

Review: Ashen Stars

“Your players decide whether to make it matter. You decide what the truth is.” – Ashen Stars

I’m still looking for the game that will enthuse and re-invigorate my SF gaming the way Beasts & Barbarians did for fantasy, and given how impressed I was by Night’s Black Agents, the obvious next place to look is the space opera game from the same stable.

In a Nutshell: Space opera RPG that strives to emulate a gritty reboot of a TV series that never was. 305 page PDF, $25 at time of review, author Robin Laws.

CONTENT

Where the Stars Turn Grey (2 pages): What a roleplaying game is, although the book (reasonably) assumes you know that by now; other Gumshoe games you might want to try; overview of the rest of the book.

All the Justice Credits Can Buy (12 pages): The game premise is that a utopian interstellar society much like Star Trek’s Federation (the Combine) was recently destroyed in a great war, by enemies who have since mysteriously vanished (the Mohilar). While the core worlds rebuild themselves, the frontier worlds are left to their own devices, and everything the USS Enterprise would have handled previously is now contracted out to freelance mercenaries like the PCs.

PCs are created in several steps: Choose a species, assign crew skill packages to ensure that between them the party can do everything the PCs will need to do, choose other investigative and general abilities (these would be characteristics and skills in most games), choose a drive; then as a group, choose your ship and equipment and rate the group’s Reputation. Players are also encouraged to create a personal arc for each PC, a quest which will be woven into the campaign plotline as it moves forwards. Like the icon relationships in 13th Age, this is a way of ensuring that the PCs matter in the context of the game; on its own, this concept takes up four of the 12 pages in the chapter, which tells me it’s important.

There’s a lot of flipping backwards and forwards through the book as you create characters, and it’s best done as a group process, since the group needs to cover a lot of different skills between them, characters need to be differentiated so they all have a chance to shine in play, and they need to agree on how they spend shared points on buying gear and a ship.

Reputation is the mechanism by which the game’s key theme is rewarded or punished; at its core, the game strives to maintain tension between doing what’s right (which increases your Rep) and doing what’s good for yourself (which generally decreases it). The higher the group’s Rep, the more often it will find work, and the better off it will be.

The Seven Peoples (12 pages): Here are the playable races, which I really like.

  • The Balla are part-elf, part-Vulcan; nature-loving, striving to contain their emotions and occasionally failing with disastrous consequences.
  • Cybes are genetically- and cybernetically-enhanced humans, created as super-soldiers for the war recently ended, and now unsure of their position. I can’t help thinking of them as liberated Borg.
  • The Durugh are short, ugly former enemies of the Combine who changed sides before the end of the recent war. They have the ability to go out of phase, enabling them to walk through walls.
  • Humans are, as usual, the Mario; numerous, adaptable and determined.
  • The Kch-Thk are a proud warrior race of humanoid locusts, who at death can migrate their consciousness to a nearby larva, much like the skin jobs in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, or a videogame character respawning at the last save point. The downside to this species is a voracious need to consume organic matter, like terrestrial locusts. The Combine’s decision to remove restrictions on Kch-Thk breeding to produce vast armies for the Mohilar War means there are now huge numbers of ravenous combat veterans looking for food and trouble.
  • The Tavak are another proud warrior race; it’s unusual for a game like this to have more than one, but here they are. Serene and sleepy under normal conditions, these humanoid armadillos are roused to berserk frenzy when they need to fight.
  • The Vas Mal are few in number and resemble the Greys of UFO lore; they are the de-evolved remnants of godlike energy beings, physically weak but retaining some of their former psychic powers.

What You Can Do (26 pages): This covers investigative and general abilities, starting with the skill packages for each role a PC crew will need; each PC has both a shipboard and a groundside role, and based on these it looks like the optimum party size is six characters (some of whom may be NPCs). This is where my first beef with Gumshoe as a rules engine arises; too many skills, 50 investigative and 30 general.

Drives (9 pages): 32 different motivations for your PC, 7 of which can only be taken by specific races. These guide roleplaying but have no mechanical effect, unlike (say) Savage Worlds Hindrances.

Gumshoe Rules (22 pages): As usual, Gumshoe is divided into clue-gathering skills and general abilities. Reading through this implementation soon after reading Night’s Black Agents, I’m less impressed this time round – maybe that’s because of implementation differences, maybe it’s because I’ve given the rules more thought, maybe I’m just a grumpy old git who’s worked too much overtime this month.

Clue-gathering skills always succeed. Gumshoe makes a big thing about this, but really you can do it in any system by looking at the PC’s skills or character class. Aragorn is a ranger? Fine, he finds the orc tracks and the hobbits’ dropped brooch then, no need to roll for it. This is my second beef with Gumshoe, I think this part is needlessly complex.

General abilities (including combat skills) succeed if you make a skill test, which in Gumshoe you do by spending points from a pool, rolling 1d6, and meeting or beating a target number to succeed. Your PC’s “skill level” is the size of the points pool for that skill. Pools refresh at certain points, and you can increase pools by spending what are effectively experience points.

Damage is deducted from the PC’s Health, and he passes out when he has none left.

Starships (40 pages): It’s a given that the PC team has a starship. We have a range of ship types, a recommended ship for players not sure what to take, and upgrade options. Where this game is different is in the highly abstracted combat; it’s like watching the Star Trek bridge crew, or playing the Artemis computer game, in that there are several key roles in ship combat, each of which has a chance to shine. Mechanically, the objective is to accumulate enough points to achieve your objective – each ship may have a different objective (there are 10 to choose from), and the first to achieve its goal wins, in the sense of ending the engagement on its own terms. At the extremes, you need 6 points to Escape, and 21 points to Destroy your opponent. These numbers increase dramatically if you’re outnumbered.

Each turn, the crew decides which of four attack modes to use (fire, manoeuvre, override the opposing ship’s computers, or trickbag, which is a collection of dirty tricks); the PC responsible for that mode engages his opposite number on the other ship, and the winner garners points. There are penalties for overusing one attack mode compared to the others. The loser of the “showdown” may take damage or casualties, which bring the other two roles (medic and engineer) into play to repair/heal them.

Tech (23 pages): The gear chapter. Again, I applaud the game for its Preparedness attribute, also seen in Night’s Black Agents; rather than obsessing over minor items of equipment, your Preparedness allows you to have one available if you succeed at a skill check. We have communicators, some unusual cyberware which is tightly integrated into the game mechanics, medical and forensic items, protective gear (most of which defends against non-standard attacks such as pheromones), investigative equipment, tailored viruses which give you assorted genetic alterations, weapons and accessories. This is the section where the game transcends the usual sci-fi setting and edges into New Space Opera, in line with the gritty reboot theme.

Between the end of this chapter and the start of the next is a basic map of the Bleed, the volume of space in which the game takes place. Space is divided into clusters, in which FTL travel is easy, and outzones, in which it is not. Like the beacons in The Last Parsec, this allows the GM to choose whether the PCs reach their destination in hours or weeks.

The Feed and the Bleed (18 pages): This section provides extra detail on the setting; but the GM is advised that until a piece of information is discovered by the PCs, it is not yet part of the established “series continuity” and can be changed at whim. The GM is encouraged to do this to incorporate player input.

Here we find provisional goverment structures for the Combine, which have been imitated by most worlds; the Combine’s (cursory) presence in the Bleed; the concepts of synthcultures and nufaiths, which allow the GM to insert a world based on any culture or religion into the campaign with ease; a history of the Combine and the Seven Peoples; how to handle the Bogey Conundrum, a mysterious effect which makes it impossible to remember anything about the Mohilar; Bleed slang and jargon.

On the Contact (13 pages): This chapter explains the business the PCs are in, namely freelance problem solving and law enforcement, and what they can (and cannot) do. First we look at Reputation, mentioned above, and how if can be influenced by Public Relations material spread by the PCs and others.

This segues into a discussion of what sort of contracts PCs get, and how much downtime they have between contracts – the better their Rep, the more they are in demand. During downtime, all the boring stuff happens, and upkeep has to be paid for the ship and your equipment; if you can’t pay the upkeep, items have to be taken offline. There are also a number of side deals you can take on in parallel with the main mission, and loans in case the contracts are too far apart.

Next comes an explanation of law and justice; which laws apply, jurisdiction, trial procedures, sentencing and punishments. Not that your PCs would ever get in trouble with the law, or course, but they may actually be the law on a world.

Worlds are Stories (16 pages): This section profundly affected my thinking on SF RPG campaigns, and I’m still working through the ramifications. In short, it extols the virtues of spacefaring as a way of constantly refreshing the game, and casts aside any notion of world generation; the important thing is the scenario, the story of the episode; you start with the adventure premise, and build the world to bring that premise to life, linking it to the PCs’ personal arcs and your overall story arc if any. This central premise is well thought through, and fleshed out at some length.

This chapter also explains how FTL travel works in the setting, and introduces the ubiquitous meson shrapnel and the ashen stars for which the game is named, relics of the Mohilar War which interfere with technology to explain why the PCs’ gear works differently according to what the plotline requires.

The Bad, the Worse and the Alien (22 pages): Here’s the bestiary and a selection of stock NPCs. Some of them are designated as Class-K species, ones so inimical to sentient species that any PCs encountering them need to abort their official mission to eliminate them, or at least get out a warning. You get nine Class-K entities, nine stock animals, and 23 stock NPCs.

Here we also find that Gumshoe is player-facing, which means that if at all possible the players roll the dice; for example, if sneaking up on someone, the PC makes a Stealth check, but the NPC they’re stalking doesn’t roll at all.

Running the Bleed (22 pages): This is about constructing scenarios; the game calls them cases, or episodes. In each episode, the players travel to a new world, where they face a problem to solve, mostly by gathering information; encounter a plot twist; and may advance an overall story arc, or the personal arc of one of the characters. Episodes consist of scenes, which the PCs may traverse in one of several sequences, gathering clues as they go. As well as detailed guidance on how to do this, a wide range of sample episode premises (adventure seeds) is provided, any of which I’d be comfortable running off-the-cuff as an improvised scenario.

That will take you as far as a monster-of-the-week campaign, but the chapter also includes advice on building those individual scenarios into a larger arc by introducing links to personal arcs, gradually revealing an over-arching and escalating threat, and adding recurring characters. It then covers how to avoid the appearance of railroading the PCs, before finishing with an example of play.

The Witness of My Worth (23 pages): The obligatory example adventure, in which the PCs respond to a distress call from a war-ravaged planet, and find things are not as they seem.

Appendices (31 pages): Sample names, detailed example of ship combat (you’ll need that), character sheet, tables and charts.

…and we finish with an index.

FORMAT

The PDF download includes a pretty version of the game, and a printer-friendly one. In either case, two-column black text, quite readable,  especially the tables – most games make these too small or otherwise hard to read, but they are very legible here.

Colour illustrations every few pages, as is the norm, and a tasteful but non-intrusive background in the pretty version.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Since character creation is complex and requires knowledge of the setting, the playable races, and the use and relative value of 80-odd skills, this game could really do with some pre-generated characters.

CONCLUSIONS

Ashen Stars is essentially a gritty reboot of Star Trek; imagine if the Federation had lost the Dominion War big time, but then the forces of the Dominion had mysteriously vanished and whatever those things in the wormhole were had lost their powers and been precipitated into normal space. I can’t help observing, though, that gritty reboots are often franchise-killers; look at Star Trek: Enterprise or Stargate: Universe, for example.

Mechanically, I feel that the page count and skill list for intelligence gathering is overdone. Since the PCs are always going to find the clues anyway, do I really need 50 different skills and many pages of rules to explain that? I think not.

I love the setting, and the advice to GMs is very thought-provoking, but I’m not enamoured of the Gumshoe system, so I would probably want to Savage this.

Bulldogs, The Last Parsec and Daring Tales of the Space Lanes tell you there is no starmap and not much setting, and leave you to get on with it. Ashen Stars tells you how to turn that into a series of adventures and a grand story arc; the GM advice alone is worth the price of admission, Robin Laws has clearly spent a great deal of time and effort in understanding what players and GMs need, and how to give it to them.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. Great setting, great advice, but the Gumshoe system doesn’t do it for me. I’ll probably Savage the Bleed at some point. Meanwhile, this game has made me question and rethink what I should be doing in my SF game slot, and that’s a bigger topic for its own post; I am more likely to play Night’s Black Agents, but Ashen Stars may have a bigger impact on the way I game.

Not for Trafficking

We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
– James Elroy Fletcher, The Golden Journey to Samarkand

What I’m finding is that interstellar trading, simple though it is in the Science Fiction Companion, is very boring for me. You may enjoy it, and if you do, more power to you; it’s just not what my games are about these days.

I spent some time crafting a faster, easier system, and some time researching how contemporary tramp freighters actually operate – mostly on charters arranged by brokers, it turns out; speculative trading of the kind SF RPGs emulate has practically disappeared since (and possibly because of) the invention of radio.

None of that made it any more fun, sadly. So I’ve circled back around to the Daring Tales of the Space Lanes approach; the characters spend a lot of time trading, but that all happens off-camera and generates just enough money to offset the ship’s operating expenses; the players don’t get involved in it.

Since this has been the outcome whatever setting and rules I’ve used since the late 1980s, I’m going to knock trading on the head now; you won’t see it here again.

That does leave me with the question of how much money PCs should reasonably have available, so for the time being I shall adapt the Savings rules from Beasts & Barbarians, summarised and modified as follows:

  • At the end of each adventure, PCs get paid or fence their loot, replenish supplies, and replace lost items.
  • They retain $500 per Rank (more than in B&B because the SF PC tends to have more, and more expensive, gear) for emergencies. This is adjusted by the Rich and Filthy Rich Edges, and the Poverty Hindrance, as usual.
  • They then spend everything else they made on the adventure before the next one starts – on the traditional “ale and whores”, starship repairs, training, collection of pet fish, or whatever.

I’m also bored by the hyperspace astrogation rolls and variable trip time. Henceforth jumps succeed and take a week each, and we’re not interested in how much of that week is in hyperspace and how much in realspace. So there.

So much for trafficking. On with the lust for knowing what should not be known!

Review: Night’s Black Agents

"One of us always stays awake, in case of vampires." – Peanuts

It looks like I might get to GM for another group, and in looking for something exciting and different to run, I landed on Night’s Black Agents.

In a Nutshell: It’s The Bourne Identity meets Underworld; badass secret agents vs vampires with the world at stake. (Hur hur.) No pressure, then. 233 page PDF, written by Ken Hite.

CONTENT

Introduction (3 pages): This explains the goal of the game, which is to create a vampire spy thriller, and the modes in which this can be done: Burn, which focusses on the psychological cost to the characters of what they do; Dust, which tones down the over-the-top cinematic defaults to give you a gritty, deadly game; Mirror, which focusses on issues of trust and betrayal; and Stakes, which assumes the PCs are driven by a higher purpose. You can of course mix and match those; my all-time favourite vampire show, the British TV mini-series Ultraviolet, was a Dust/Mirror mix with some of the characters having Stakes as well.

Characters (34 pages): Character generation is a point-buy system in four stages. First, you choose a background, or several; this isn’t a character class per se, but does denote the PC’s role in the team – wheelman, muscle, hacker, and so on. Second, choose investigative abilities – streetwise, tradecraft and so on; these always work, so the PCs will never miss a clue, although they may misinterpret it. Third, choose general abilities – shooting, hand to hand, driving; these require a die roll (on 1d6) to succeed, but the points you put into them can be spent to modify the roll. In this stage you also pick the PC’s MOS; this is one general ability at which you excel, even for a superspy, and once per session you can declare that you automatically succeed when using it. Finally, you create the PC’s personality and dossier; this is partly just backstory, but also optionally includes sources of stability – the people and places that keep the PC sane, and allow him to destress between operations. (Naturally, these will at some point become targets for his enemies…) The PC also has a Drive, which is the thing that motivates him to keep fighting the vampires rather than run and hide.

Adventures in NBA are composed of either intelligence gathering, which uses investigative abilities, or confrontation, which uses general ones. At its most basic, dangerous situations get you information, which leads you to the next dangerous situation, which leads you to another clue, and so on.

General abilities also have "cherries"; these are special features that kick in when you have at least 8 points in the ability. My favourite is Preparedness, which is the ability covering how well you select and pack your gear for the mission. At 8 points, you can retroactively prepare timely specific actions in flashback during play – "I thought this might happen, so last night I rigged his car; I can cut his engine anytime using this…"

Character creation works better as a group effort, because the group will need every investigative ability at some point, so you need to make sure that between them, the group has them all. If you are using the optional trust and betrayal rules, the PCs also need to record how much they trust each of the others. Trust acts as a kind of roving modifier whereby one PC can help another; by betraying each other, PCs can get significant one-time bonuses on actions that hinder the one betrayed.

Players are allowed to reserve build points and spend them in play, as a staple of the genre is suddenly revealing that you could speak Bulgarian all along.

Rules (51 pages): The rules chapter is long, and mostly special cases. What you need to know is this:

  • You always find the clues. Always. You may not understand them, but you will not miss any. However, by spending points, you can get more information – you don’t need this extra information, but it can help speed things up.
  • In a confrontation, you roll 1d6 plus the number of points you want to spend on it, and try to hit a target number, usually 4. You commit the points before rolling the die.
  • Points you spend grow back either at specific points in the game, or when you do something especially cool (for example use your 8 points in Athletics to free-run across the roofs of Paris).
  • Points are not skill levels in the usual sense. Points are a way to signal how much a particular scene is about your character doing cool stuff.
  • You have Health (resistance to damage, lose too much and you die) and Stability (resistance to emotion shocks and betrayal, lose too much and you go insane).

Tools (25 pages): Here’s the gear chapter, and my eyes are not glazing over, which is almost unique. The PCs are superspies, and they have access to any conventional item appropriate to the genre, or anything a middle-class European would be able to buy. Acquiring gear only takes up screen time when it has narrative importance (like Bourne’s cache of passports in the Swiss bank) or can be handled very quickly. There’s no money in the game as such; if something is easy to get, you’ve got it, and if it’s hard to get, you make a general ability test to get at it. The gear list is therefore a short descriptive paragraph for each item, generally with no stats attached.

The Tools chapter is more than just gear, though; it’s also a primer on tradecraft for players. It encourages the group to maintain an adversary map – one of those things the protagonists in the movies always have, a cork board covered in photos, notes, and little pieces of string linking them together. How is the terrorist cell in Marseilles connected to the overall conspiracy? Who sent the hitman after them? Why?

Vampires (45 pages): This is where GM-only territory starts, with a build-your-own vampire kit. Are the vampires supernatural, damned souls, aliens, mutants, or some combination? Where did they originate? What are their powers, weaknesses and objectives? How many of them are there? Can they be cured, and if so, how? Some modes work better with some types of vampire, and there’s guidance on this. There are five different example vampires if you want to cut to the chase and start staking, and a dozen unnatural creatures they might have in support, as well as animals related to vampires in various folkloric traditions. (Stock human NPCs are elsewhere in the book.)

The vampire kit is followed by a conspiracy kit, and the GM’s conspyramid, which is a pyramid of nodes in six levels, from street gangs to the vampire elders themselves. This is the narrative framework of the game, showing who the opposition is, what clues can be found when they are defeated, and – when linked with the vampyramid below – what the conspiracy does in retaliation for being poked at that level. In the example conspiracy provided, a raid on a radar station (level 1) can provide clues leading to a member of the Israeli mafia (level 2) or a ring of heroin smugglers (level 3).

There are several non-pyramidal conspiracy structures, but my instinct is that they would be too confusing for the players.

Cities (24 pages): Most of the action in NBA, especially gathering information, happens in cities – the game as written assumes somewhere in Europe. The chapter explains how to set up one or more cities for the game, with a few examples; provides capsule descriptions of the nations, and also the real-world intelligence, terrorist and criminal organisations operating on the continent.

Stories (10 pages): This is advice to the GM on how to set up adventures; the rhythm of spying and fighting scenes which drive each scenario, the conspyramid which shows where the clues take the PCs and who they fight when they get there, the framework of scenes in a standard thriller and how to modify them, the types of missions that the PCs or their opposition mount, and the vampyramid I mentioned above; this is a list of retaliation options the vampires have when you poke their nest with a stick, such as offering to pay you off, framing you for murder, etc. The GM is encouraged to avoid repetition here; being framed once is a challenge, being framed twice is boring.

Scenarios dealt with, we move on to campaigns; the default NBA campaign begins with the PCs learning that vampires exist, the vampires finding out that they know, and then shifts into a race to see which side can wipe the other out first.

Finally, there is a section on alternatives to the vampire conspiracy; straight-up spy stories, Cthulhu, or psionics.

(S)entries (9 pages): This is a introductory scenario, in which the PCs are hired to suppress evidence of something. The action takes them across the Balkans, through fights, car chases and double-crosses, to the realisation of what the evidence is, and how far the opposition will go to suppress it.

Addenda (15 pages): Character sheets, GM worksheets, quick reference sheets.

FORMAT

Unusually, this document is laid up in three columns, black on white with red or grey headings, and the occasional colour illustration. Crisp, clean, a pleasure to read.

CONCLUSIONS

I love spy stories almost as much as I love science fiction, I love playing with conspiracy ideas, I’m OK with vampires, and Ken Hite is the ideal author to merge those elements into a kickass game, which he has duly done.

It does rely on the players sharing responsibility for the narrative, and in my experience not all groups are comfortable with this. The conspyramid is effectively a sandbox; like a dungeon map it presents the PCs with choices of routes to follow, but they must decide which lead to follow up and how.

The GM also needs to prepare quite a lot in advance; the actual sessions may be improvised, but you need to know what your vampires are like, how their conspiracy is structured, and what their objectives are; these give you the framework within which you can improvise.

If you plan on running this game, watch Ultraviolet first. Seriously.

If you don’t, there are a lot of ideas here that are worth pilfering. The conspyramid for the overall campaign structure; the vampyramid for how the bad guys react to the PCs’ meddling; the notes on how to run a thriller story. These are things that I will take with me into the next campaign – in fact I can retrofit them into the Shadows of Keron adventure in Caldeia which will start next time the PCs foregather. Be a shame not to, really.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. Man, I want to run this now; and I think it could be done online, too. Got some prep work first though…

Long-Range Planning

"I’ve felt the cold hand of my own mortality." – Frank Herbert, Dune

The events of the last couple of years have shown me that the end of my gaming career is now in sight, like it or not. Considering how the previous generation got on, and the plans people have already discussed with me, in big handfuls the future looks like this…

FUTURE HISTORY

2015-2025: I’ll still be at work, still playing every few weeks with my WFRP3 buddies (who will change game systems at least twice during that time), and gamemastering for the Shadows of Keron players every few months – most likely Beasts & Barbarians, but maybe something else.

Things to do:

  • Solo gaming – ten years of campaigns lasting six months each is 20 games; in reality I expect not many will be renewed for a second season, so I expect to exit this period still playing no more than a couple of them, having got the others out of my system.
  • Group gaming – ten years of (say) one session every three months is 40 sessions. Realistically, that is no more than another two campaigns at best; I’ll have to think long and hard before changing setting again.
  • Learn how to paint figures properly, while I still have eyes and hands good enough for it. If I assume one figure per month over that period on average, it’ll still be over a hundred; that should be enough to get me up to tabletop standard.
  • Sort out online gaming via Roll20, Google Hangouts and whatnot.

2025-2035: I’ll be retired, but still reasonably fit and healthy. The WFRP3 group’s regular GM will retire to France – either one of the others, possibly me, will take over as GM, or the group will break up at that point. However, my grandchildren will be in the 8-12 age range and ready to start playing, which will be great fun; especially if their parents join in too. I can hope for a face to face game every few weeks, but realistically every couple of months is more likely.

Things to do:

  • Teach grandchildren the joy of roleplaying. It would be remiss of me not to equip them with basic D&D skills as part of this, as if they carry on playing, that is what they’re most likely to encounter. It would be equally remiss to limit them to that.

2035-2045: This part is unlikely to be much fun; I’ll probably still be mentally active, but physically things start to look dodgy. The children will be the age I am now, the grandchildren leaving home to live their own lives; roleplaying with a decrepit grognard will not be a big part of those lives.

Things to do:

  • Get myself digitally uploaded into cyberspace. A destructive read will be fine by this point.

REFLECTIONS

That’s not so bad, is it? Just as well; I suspect there’s not much I can do about it.

The lesson to take away? You’ve got less gaming time left than you think. Make it count. Don’t waste it on anything less than the best, whatever that is for you.

"To suspect your own mortality is to know the beginning of terror; to learn irrefutably that you are mortal is to know the end of terror." – Frank Herbert, Dune

B&B Adventures as at February 2015

“In the lands of the North, where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long, the men of the Northlands sit by the great log fires, and they tell a tale…” – The Saga of Noggin the Nog

Long ago, I took a map of the Dread Sea Dominions and marked upon it all the Beasts & Barbarians adventures, and I promised that I would update it periodically. Alas, that is no longer practical, because the adventures in the Borderlands, Faberterra, Kyros and Zandor – the most popular locations – are clustered too close together now. But I can give you a list! You know where your party is, so check that area and see what’s around them…

ADVENTURES

GE = Beasts & Barbarians Golden Edition; BOD = Beasts of the Dominions.

The Borderlands: The Amulet of Dogskull (first part); The Betrayers of Rhybard (BOD); The Carnival of Nal Sagath; Moonless Night Over Grimdell; Wolves in the Borderlands (this is the one that persuaded me to buy B&B).

The Cairnlands: The Cliff Queen’s Court; The Price of Peace (BOD).

Caldeia: Death’s Cargo (BOD – second part).

Ekul: Shadows Over Ekul.

Faberterra: The Dread Shard; Green World; Main Attraction (BOD).

The Dread Sea: Eyes of the Night (BOD).

The Independent Cities: Death’s Cargo (BOD – first part).

The Iron Mountains: The Queen of the Lost Valley.

The Ivory Savannah: Hunter’s Moon (BOD)

Jalizar, City of Thieves: Grains of Death.

Kyros: A Matter of Love (BOD); Citadel of the Winged Gods; Thieves in the Night (Savage Insider #3).

Northeim: The Amulet of Dogskull (second part).

The Red Desert: Death of a Tyrant (this is the one the Shadows of Keron group enjoyed the most, I think).

Syranthia: The Skinner of Syranthia; The Whispered (BOD).

Tricarnia: Hosts (BOD).

Zandor: Vengeance of the Branded Devils (GE); Windborn (BOD). Jalizar is part of Zandor, so adventures there are technically in Zandor too.

PLACES WITH NO ADVENTURES YET

Ascaia, the Amazons’ Island; Caledland; the Cannibal Islands; the Fallen Realm of Keron; the Finger Islands; Gis, City of the Alchemists; the Islands of the Maimed Ones; the Land of the Idols; Lhoban; the Lush Jungle; the Troll Mountains; Valkheim; the Valk Steppe; the Verdant Belt.

Shadows of Keron, Episode 30: Hunter’s Moon

You’ll have to wait a bit longer for the next episode of Shepherd’s adventures, because Shadows of Keron lurched briefly back into life over the weekend. Four of us found ourselves in a windswept cottage in Oxfordshire with a bunch of dice, more whiskey than the mind can comfortably conceive of, and a copy of Beasts of the Dominions.

HUNTER’S MOON

Since the group was last seen in the Ivory Savannah, that is where we pick up their story again. I had packed BoD because what one needs in these circumstances is a short, picaresque adventure that can be finished in a few hours; and in the Ivory Savannah we find Hunter’s Moon, an everyday story of tribesmen, merchant caravans, the Elephants’ Graveyard, and Things Man Was Not Meant To Know.

We established earlier that the group splintered at some point between Ekul and the Brown Sea, and is making its way home in penny packets. While our series regulars are off dealing death to Kumal the Smiling and picking up a piece of treasure they will really regret finding, three of the fellowship have taken passage with a merchant caravan across the Savannah, intending to cross that, then the Red Desert, and thus at last come home to the Independent Cities.

These worthies are Peter Perfect the Paladin, Seasoned holy warrior of Hulian; Abishag, Seasoned halfling thief (don’t ask); and Alihulk Junior, Seasoned fighting man and the living embodiment of the phrase "No retreat – no surrender".

I will limit my report of the scenario to avoid spoilers, but here are a couple of vignettes for you:

  • Alihulk attempting to catch a man-eating lion by covering himself in raw meat and sleeping outdoors. He attracted a lot in the way of noisome vermin, but no lions.
  • Peter replaying the famous motion tracker scene from Aliens using Detect Arcana and a Thing Man Was Not Meant To Know.
  • Alihulk, mounted on a lame warpony, chasing down a burning lion (set on fire by Peter Perfect) and grappling it. That really didn’t end well for either party.

Hunter’s Moon worked well. The plot is very linear, but the players naturally followed it without apparently noticing that, and with no steering from me. A fine time was had by all.

LATIFUNDIUM

As veteran roleplayers, the party got through Hunter’s Moon more quickly than I’d expected, and I felt Alihulk and Abishag deserved some time in the spotlight as Peter had shone in that scenario.

So it was that they encountered an old witch in a walking hut (Baba Yaga-style) who had seen Alihulk’s father and brother earlier. Learning that the father, Alihulk Senior, had moved to Caldeia to become a dark sorceror – he is Alihulk Junior’s enemy, which is intriguing – and that Alihulk Junior’s younger brother had followed him there some time later, the party decided to follow them down the Buffalo River to Caldeia.

Peter Perfect was bent on overthrowing this stronghold of slavery and dark sorcery; Alihulk aimed to confront his father; and Abishag is designed for city work, so we ought to get him into a city for a bit.

I had a vague plan, based on Alihulk Senior being somehow connected with the Disciples of the Black Temple, a couple of recycled NPCs, and a copy of the Mythic GME tables, and this proved to be enough. In fact, it flowed more smoothly than Hunter’s Moon, because I didn’t need to look anything up.

The first sign of civilisation they found was a slave plantation. After maiming a slave overseer because he wouldn’t free the slaves, they decided to enter the villa and have it out with the plantation manager, who they had learned ran the place on behalf of a priest prince. There, Peter and Alihulk were mistaken for guests at the evening’s orgy, and Abishag for part of the entertainment. Taking ruthless advantage of this, they attempted to suborn the plantation manager with a plan for a more cost-efficient plantation operated by freedmen, and offered to stand in for the stable boys who would otherwise have to handle the Priest-Prince’s giant bat steed ("We usually have to replace a couple of stable boys when he visits on that, it’s vicious.").

After much planning, they settled on ambushing the Priest-Prince as he arrived, using Lower Trait to discomfit his steed. He had realised something was wrong on the approach, and consequently survived the crash-landing because he had Deflection and Armour running, which also helped him with assorted stabbings. While his Amazon bodyguard was being run through by Alihulk, the Priest-Prince made a run for the edge of the roof, intending to leap off and trust to his Armour to save him from the fall; but Peter rugby-tackled him and then stabbed him fatally.

The plantation manager, arriving to greet his master, took in the scene quickly and realised that his life was forfeit. Secretly, he also has a thing for the Amazon, so ran to save her. Learning that the Amazons are loyal to whoever pays them, and that the death of her principal makes her life forfeit and her contract void, Peter heals her, and the party decamp before the three other Priest-Princes expected at the orgy can arrive.

They are now on the outskirts of Caldeia, planning their next move. Little do they know that Baaltasar the plantation manager is in fact a renegade Disciple of the Black Temple, on the run.

Good fun. Shadows of Keron practically writes itself by now.

NEXT TIME, ON HALFWAY STATION…

…we return to Greg Shepherd. I’ll have to do a couple of weeks with double episodes if I’m to reach the self-imposed goal of 26 episodes by the half-year point.