Review: Parsantium, etc

Posted: 22 July 2017 in Reviews

“I was born here in the city
With my back against the wall
Nothing grows, and life ain’t very pretty
No one’s there to catch you when you fall”
– The Eagles, In the City

In a nutshell: Parsantium is a city sourcebook that works with any version of D&D, 178 pages. Icons of Parsantium is a collection of 15 movers and shakers that dominate the city and the surrounding lands, 47 pages. Whispers of the Dark Daeva is a 42-page adventure for 1st level PCs. All written by Richard Green and published by Ondine Publishing. Roughly £15, £4 and £4 respectively at time of writing.

PARSANTIUM, CITY AT THE CROSSROADS

As the author explains in the introduction, Parsantium grew out of a desire to merge a great fantasy city with exotic cultures and use that for his home game. The result is essentially Byzantium around the turn of the first millennium, but in a world where India got nudged a bit closer to the mediterranean for convenient access to its culture and monsters.

Once past the introduction and the city map, you get an overview of the city (history, character races and backgrounds – 16 pages), and chapters on life in the city (politics, law, customs – 18 pages), running a campaign (themes, facilities, features – 10 pages), a gazetteer (places, people and plot hooks for each of the 11 wards plus comments on the underworld below the city and nearby regions outside – 70 pages), organisations both overt and covert (24 pages), religions derived from the Graeco-Roman, Indian, Arabic and Chinese cultural analogues which inhabit Parsantium (15 pages), and an index.

The map is a delight, and the timeline covers 2,000 years of history in overview. The city’s internal politics are appropriately Byzantine. Most of the key NPCs seem to be about 14th or 15th level, lesser ones averaging about 5th level, and they have no detailed stats – just a notation of alignment, class and level, which personally I much prefer to full statblocks. Each ward has a number of passersby to encounter as well as the traditional shops, temples and so forth, each with a paragraph of detail. A welcome touch is the inclusion for each ward of the PCs’ first impressions on entering it.

On the downside, I prefer to have my fantasy races separated into their own tidy little kingdoms, Tolkien style, not thrown into a blender a la Eberron. Parsantium is human-dominated, but you also have minotaurs, dragonborn, centaurs, tieflings, vanara (intelligent monkey people), gnolls, half-everythings, and whatnot. For me, this Star Wars cantina approach degrades the sense of wonder – when everything is fantastic, nothing is fantastic. Halfling gypsies camped outside the walls don’t do it for me either, I’m afraid. And it’s got gnomes in it. I hate gnomes. So I will probably tone down the number of humanoids and emphasise the different human cultures.

The character backgrounds and city statistics are clearly aimed at Pathfinder, but that’s very little of the book, maybe 6 pages total. The rest of it would work with any edition of D&D I’m familiar with, and it would take very little effort to reskin it for other fantasy RPGs.

The law and order section includes a list of crimes and their punishments, as well as notes on the largely corrupt city watch. The customs and culture chapter includes food, drink, clothing, the calendar, festivals, entertainment, superstitions etc. Now this in particular is a difficult row to hoe; a sourcebook must have enough of these to establish the setting’s culture as different and interesting, but not so many that it is hard work to memorise them before the game.

The chapter on running a campaign offers five main options; running with the criminal gangs (Grand Theft Donkey – Parsantium), uncovering the secrets of the older city on which Parsantium is built (dungeon crawling), political intrigue, fighting as gladiators in the arena, and the return of an ancient evil. No reason not to mix and match, of course. There are also random events to shake things up.

ICONS OF PARSANTIUM

Here are 15 major NPCs written up 13th Age style, faction leaders with whom the PCs can have some sort of connection. Some are individuals, others are organisations; some live in or near Parsantium, and others are distant. You don’t have to use them all, and in fact my (admittedly limited) experience of icons in general is that focussing on a few of them gives you a better game.

Each icon has a quotation, a usual location, a paragraph of common knowledge (what everyone knows about them), missions they might send adventurers on, minions at their command, allies and enemies, a little of their history and one real danger that they could unwittingly unleash (these make good plotlines).

There are also two playable races for 13th Age, gnolls and vanara, presented as sidebars.

There are separate sections of example relationship dice outcomes for each icon (nice touch that, this was something my group and I had trouble with when using 13th Age icons), and the secret, GM-only information on each icon. This means you can use the main icon writeups as handouts if you wish, while retaining some mysteries for the PCs to work out for themselves.

WHISPERS OF THE DARK DAEVA

Here’s an adventure in four parts, in which the PCs are engaged to solve a series of puzzling murders in the Dock Ward of the Old Quarter.

Drawn in at first by witnessing one of the murders, the PCs do some investigatory legwork and (naturally) visit the local pub before heading into the villain’s hideout to sort them out. The longer they take to do this, the more murders occur around them, and the more murders, the worse things get for them – this forms a sort of ticking bomb in the scenario, and once they work out what is going on, it adds time pressure to their activities.

A sidebar explains which Icons are likely to be involved and how, should you be using the Icons. Finally, outcomes are provided explaining what happens if the PCs succeed – or if they fail.

FORMAT

Colour covers, full-colour city map, minimal internal illustrations including the odd dungeon map, two-column black text on white. Simple, effective, easy on the eye and the printer.

There’s also a blog by the author here, focused on the setting’s development.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I’d like more detail on the Hidden Quarter please; perhaps a side-on diagram on how the various levels fit together (I’ll probably knock one of those up myself to help me understand it at some point) and some more location maps for places of interest and mystery.

CONCLUSIONS

A fantasy version of mediaeval Byzantium is something I’ve often toyed with as a setting, and Parsantium absolves me of the need to do any heavy lifting for it. These products come across as a labour of love by someone with a deep knowledge of the Eastern Roman Empire of the 10th to 11th century, and cultures less frequently seen in fantasy gaming.

In terms of the product interactions, Icons needs Parsantium but not vice versa, and Whispers could stand alone, but would be a good introductory adventure for a Parsantium campaign.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. This is the best contender for my planned D&D 5E city game, currently in development, but it needs some tweaking. If nothing else, those wretched gnomes have got to go…

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.” – George Bernard Shaw

The annual gamesfest with my old university friends rolled round again recently. It has reduced in both size and duration of late; it’s now three of us over two days rather than 5-8 over four days, partly due to our kids growing up and leaving home, partly because it’s getting harder to schedule, and also (frankly) because we’re getting older; but we ain’t givin’ up yet. Over two days we played for about 16 hours while consuming large quantities of beer and whiskey, for that too is part of the ritual.

The players’ Shadows of Keron characters are currently in Caldeia, plotting regime change, and I need to do some serious prep work before that storyline can proceed; so this year, the crew of the Collateral Damage came out to play, and I started them on the Heart of the Fury campaign for Bulldogs!

Now, that was only published in 2016, and my self-imposed rule is no spoilers in the first five years; so, let’s just say that they worked their way through three episodes: The Teraci Extraction, The Pickup Job, and The Informant, enough to embroil them in the overall story arc and give them both a powerful friend and some clue what’s going on. I only expected them to complete the first of those scenarios, but I had forgotten how quickly a small group of experienced players chews through plot under Savage Worlds.

There are numerous possible routes through the campaign, but since we only play a couple of times per year, I’ll stick to the ‘express route’ – just the plot point scenarios, and in the order listed in the book. That will last us something like three years at our current pace, longer if we take time out to progress the Caldeian storyline or to deal with the dragon turtle currently menacing our adopted city of Shadipuur in the OD&D campaign.

Shouldn’t have let that whacko cult summon it in the first place, I suppose. But I digress.

The mapless approach has allowed me to change setting twice on these players, adding and removing worlds (indeed, entire interstellar empires) without that causing any problems. In fact, I don’t think they have actually noticed. This reinforces my beliefs:

  • Settings are for the GM.
  • The less you tell the players about the setting, the better.
  • While the characters spend hours haggling with cargo brokers and plotting courses, the players don’t have to and shouldn’t.

However, the characters’ base of operations needs some level of detail so that it feels like home; this group’s base is the Collateral Damage itself, so I printed and laminated the Moon Toad Type A Free Trader deck plans for them – it’s the one location we know will appear in every session. On the miniatures front, I have used OkumArts Retro-Space card figures for the last few games, as they are cheap and portable, with some Litko figure bases doing double duty as bennies.

Meanwhile, between a massive increase in workload, my son’s graduation, and an impending grandchild (this will be number four), gaming has to take a back seat for a while, so blog posts are going to be spotty for the next few months. Keep playing, and I’ll see you on the other side.

The Pawns spent some time in surveillance of the Mountaineers’ village before deciding that while sneaking through it to the Monastery was more stylish and less dangerous if it worked, failure would cause potentially fatal problems; so they roped themselves together and climbed up a rockface to the Monastery, despite Ash’s protestations about the damage to his new riding boots. Meandering around inside, they found Karmella, disposed of the guardians, and ran for it; onrushing guards forced them to divert into the chamber of the Black Flame, where a complex three-way combat ensued; Mountaineers vs Black Monks vs the party.

Our heroes inflicted severe casualties on the Black Monks, thanks to U’wahz using his Sage superpower to add a fact to the setting, namely that the Monks’ “Black Flame Rays” could be reflected by mirrors. By that point Korras was down, and an unspoken truce developed between the Mountaineers and the party, who both ran for it as the Black Flame exploded behind them.

Zosimus and the bulk of the party kept on running, on the basis that the Mountaineers would soon realise that imposters now knew the location of their hidden base and would then want to silence them; but the Monk and Max went back into the Monastery looking for loot to carry off, and Dorjee took on board the task of healing Korras; so perforce they rejoined their companions later, and all made good their escape.

The party went a little bit off-piste towards the end; they avoided Ulesir Shah’s unexpectedly heroic march to the Monastery and took Princess Karmella back to Tokarim Shah and Jirro, before heading south with the Amazons to Shan’Ammar. They also told Jirro where to find the Mountaineers’ secret hideout, so no doubt hijinks will ensue off-stage – this because Ash likes causing trouble for the hell of it and Zosimus hates Valk with a passion.

We closed the session with them boarding the Blood Bride and sailing off into the sunset.

GM NOTES

This time I agreed with the group that we would use tokens to track progress on the climb, and the mapless dungeon approach of trait rolls and card draws recommended in the core setting book. I was expecting them to push back hard on that, but in fact they didn’t, noting that it was easier for me (as I don’t have to draw maps) and faster for them (no mapping, no time spent investigating boring empty rooms, their time focussed on the battlemats for exciting locations) so I think I can adopt this wholesale now – it is after all the way it’s meant to be played.

The group also readily accepted the idea of staying on board a ship they do not captain, which allows me to move them wherever suits the plot of the next adventure, and all of us to discard inconvenient plot elements every time they leave port, such as bothersome NPCs, over-powerful relics (“I didn’t think you wanted that any more, so I fenced it…”) and pursuing law enforcement. Max is on a mission to collect relics stolen from his clan, and Dorjee is in search of rare Lotus components for the Alchemists of Gis, both Hindrances chosen to give me scenario hooks, and between those and them being aboard a pirate ship I can send them anywhere next.

However, my turn as GM is done for a while, and after a break over the summer I expect we will turn to the Warhammer World again.

 

Review: Relics of the Lost

Posted: 17 May 2017 in Reviews

In a Nutshell: Sourcebook of lost technology for Stars Without Number. 34 page PDF from Sine Nomine Publications, written by Kevin Crawford.

CONTENTS

No spoilers…

Relics of the Lost (1 page): What the book is, advice on how to stock ruins with relics of the Terran Mandate, guidelines on how to buy and sell Pretech.

Tools of Ill Omen (8 pages): Weapons and armour from the none-too-peaceful era before the fall of the Mandate. A couple of dozen weapons and 10 items of armour showcasing Mr Crawford’s imaginative ways of killing characters, ranging from the ingenious to the downright unnerving. On top of that, there is the possibility that a weapon might have been improved in some way from the standard model, or have developed a flaw during its centuries of disuse.

A Better Shell (5 pages): Advanced medical technology of the Mandate; 30 drugs with various healing or recreational properties, and how they might have gone bad over the years. There’s also a brief piece of background information on pharma companies of the Mandate for flavour.

Delights of a Former Age (7 pages): Yes, your PCs are looking for bigger and better guns, but they might well find civilian tools and basic commercial goods. Which they will probably try to repurpose as weapons, at least if they’re like my lot. Roughly 50 everyday items that a typical Mandate citizen might have left lying around when they died or fled. A shout out here to the Gaming Miniatures and their “esoteric and largely incomprehensible set of rules”. See how many ways you can think of to kill an NPC with them.

Unsleeping Servants (5 pages): Robots and expert systems. This begins with explanations on where such things might be encountered and their reactions to PCs attempting to force or con their way in, repairing non-functional ones you might find, and how to buy and sell them – the core rulebook includes Tech Level 4 robots, so this section focusses on 8 examples of TL 5 Mandate relics rather than how to build such items.

Forbidden Fruits (4 pages): Five devices with which to inflict ruin on your PCs and their homeworlds, and notes on what defines Maltech in the game, what modern Maltechnologists are up to and why they might hire PCs to help.

Random Equipment Tables (2 pages): What it says on the tin.

FORMAT

Colour cover; inside, two-column black text on white in the usual SNP ‘trade dress’, occasional black on white line art.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I got nuthin’. This is a book full of ‘magic items’ to stock the ruins your PCs explore, and it does that job well.

CONCLUSIONS

Like its companion sourcebook Engines of Babylon, this is something I’ll dip into occasionally to spice things up rather than make the core of a campaign. It’s basically a book of magic items for SWN explorers to find.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. I think I’ll get more use from this than Engines of Babylon, but that’s because my gearhead days are long gone.

The penultimate session for Shadows Over Ekul, and after a lot of fascinating in-character discussion and debate over whether Ash should be replaced by a Valk character, the players decided to follow Jirro, cavalry officer and suspected kidnapper of Princess Karmella, to the old Tenebar Fort where he holed up, in support of Tokarim Shah.

Most of the session was spent on a commando raid on the fort. This captured, they learned from Jirro that he had, in fact, obeyed orders in good faith and to the letter (“Go to the fort and repair it, don’t come back until I send for you,”) and was not the kidnapper they were looking for. At this point a ransom note from the real kidnapper surfaced, offering to exchange Karmella for ‘Ulesir Shah’, actually Max in disguise.

In company with Philosopher Jimpah, King Ekul’s personal monk, they headed south to the hostage exchange point. By this stage they had decided that nobody was who they seemed to be, and began the exchange (correctly) convinced that the supposed ‘Karmella’ brought by the kidnappers was no such person. The leader of the kidnappers turned out to be one of the Black Monks they have developed such an interest in.

The highlight of the session for me was the fight with the kidnappers. Ash had concealed himself underwater near the lakeside exchange point, and due to an extremely positive response by the dice to his question “Are any of Etu’s sacred crocodiles following me?”, was flanked by two such reptiles. The fight began with Dorjee hurling a fear potion onto the kidnappers’ boat, whereupon the bulk of them leapt into the water where they were engaged by the crocodiles. Final score: Crocodiles 7, heroes 3, kidnappers 0.

Interrogating the Karmella imposter and the lone surviving kidnapper (a minion who knew next to nothing but was very helpful in the hopes of not being fed to the crocodiles) led them to a concealed stairway hidden behind a waterfall, at the top of which is a trail leading to a bandit village and (three dramatic chords) the Monastery of Shadows, which not unreasonably they expect to be full of Black Monks – followers of the Path of Obscurement, who have given them the only serious opposition they have faced so far in this adventure.

They slaughtered the sentinels guarding the path in less than one combat round, as Max now has Sweep and the Monk’s character build is focussed on maximising the number of attacks per round he can deliver – in the right circumstances he now gets five, which is very scary.

The session ended with the party dressed as rebels, riding captured yaks, and disappearing cinematically into a snowstorm as the camera pulled back from them.

GM NOTES

I continue to be impressed by Umberto Pignatelli’s ability to predict, or guide, what the PCs will do; after the initial debate they followed his most-likely outline almost to the letter.

They’re doing better than the last group; by the time the Shadows of Keron party had got this far, they had killed literally every NPC who knew anything about what was going on, including the slave girl posing as Karmella.

I’ve enjoyed this immensely, and it seems to have won over all but one of the players to Savage Worlds; but the next session will conclude this adventure, and then we’ll revert to WFRP3 and Star Wars EotE for a while. It will be a refreshing change to be a player again for a while.

Moving forward, I’ve calculated that at this rate I have enough scenarios for this group to last us until 2038, so I can afford to start offering them a choice of several via rumours, which I hope will improve satisfaction levels further.

Anvil Road, 8th June 216

Trusting their colleagues in Team Dragon to take care of the giant living dungeon, Team Angel (Boris, Silmaria, Ssh’ta, The Fox and Valore plus henchmen) take stock of their other options: Follow up on the cloud giant observing them earlier, pursue the bounty offered them by Gutstabber (which will mean a trip to Glitterhaegen), go back to the dwarven tower on Anvil Road and find out what’s underneath, or follow up on the flying building they noticed several months ago.

By a majority of three in favour of the dwarven tower to two not-that-bothered, they head north, arriving at the actual tower a couple of days later. They first scout the tower’s environs, then the tower itself, finding only unburied orc bodies somewhat the worse for nibbling by the local wildlife since the party killed them just over two weeks ago. Valore rightly deduces that nobody has been to check up on them or bury them, and the group removes the lift shaft lid. Ssh’ta is designated lookout and climbs to the roof with Caliban in case the party are disturbed by rude strangers while exploring.

Valore drops a torch down the shaft; it can be seen burning on the floor of a corridor some 30 feet below. Valore and Dave descend and find themselves in a corridor leading to a four-way intersection. Someone has made a half-hearted attempt to bury four goblin spearmen in the loose rock of the corridor sides between some pit props; they appear to have been bludgeoned to death. Valore draws her sword (which then appears to burst into flames, thus providing a light source) and with the others following at a safe distance, she and Dave head up to the intersection and explore a short way down each arm. To the east they find a small chamber containing cots, chicken coops, and a hole in the wall labelled ‘Slide’ in dwarven, as well as a curving corridor sloping down. To the south is another curving corridor sloping down. To the west is a third curving, sloping corridor and a chamber, containing three statues of goblin spearmen and four large chickens pecking at something concealed under an overturned mine cart.

The chickens, soon to be dubbed ‘angry medusa chickens’ by Valore, prove to be cockatrices and assault the recon element. Valore finds herself being petrified, but thinking quickly, sheathes her sword, plunging the place into darkness, and flies up to the ceiling. Silmaria, who has galloping scotophobia, freaks out, but now only Boris and Dave can see, and Dave quickly skewers two of the cockatrices with arrows. Boris steps into the chamber and engages a third while Dave shoots the last of the four, which is running off into the darkness in some confusion. Once stabbed, cockatrice number three turns on Boris and starts pecking and petrifying him; he flees back towards Silmaria and the others while Dave and The Fox attack the surviving cockatrice, sending it to oblivion; but Dave is incapacitated by its dying death gaze.

The party rallies and heals its wounds; fortunately, Dave’s apparently fatal petrification responds well to Boris’ ministrations. Lifting the overturned mine cart, they discover a single goblin spearman who thanks them for saving his life and gives Valore ‘treasure’ as a reward, namely a single copper piece. Under gentle questioning he reveals that he and his companions were sent by the Goblin Chief to retrieve the Forever Stone, a valuable item buried here after dwarves and evil wizards fought over it. Silmaria, meanwhile, has found a mineshaft in the corner of the Cockatrice Room and explains that in line with dwarven practice, it has been named after an ancient dwarven king.

Adding Hug-Hug (for such is the goblin’s name) to the party, they explore several looping, sloping corridors with the result that they wind up more or less back where they were. Shrugging, they return to the room of chicken coops. Boris assumes the shape of a bat and flies down the slide, finding at the bottom a large pit full of powdered lime and lizard bones, with glimpses of a large chamber above. Boris decides he wants nothing to with this and returns.

Trying another sloping, curvy corridor, the group descends into another chamber with two exits and a perch containing what turn out to be cockatrice eggs. Ladra, who is the group’s best climber, retrieves them, but refuses to smash them as the others suggest, pointing out that they are worth money to a certain sort of person. They use one of the exits and descend again, finding themselves in the large chamber Boris found earlier. Now that they have a better view of it, the party can clearly see a dozen or so dwarven skeletons hard at work, apparently mining.

While the rest pause to assess the new situation, Valore (who has firm views on this topic) screams “CLEANSE THE UNDEAD!” and launches herself at them.

To be continued…

GM’S NOTES

I am letting go of a lot of my ingrained habits and prejudices with this campaign, possibly because the sessions are so close together. Normally, I guard the character sheets jealously and update them all myself; for my other campaigns, where sessions average some three months apart and party size is 2-6, this is not a problem; but for a party of nine meeting weekly it just doesn’t work, and I have delegated that responsibility to players for the first time since the 1970s.

Likewise, I am gradually reverting to sandbox play, letting the party wander where it likes at its own pace. Yes, there is a story arc – the Eyes of the Stone Thief – but what does it matter if we don’t follow it, so long as we’re all having fun? In this instance, they decided to go back to a dungeon they knew of but had previously ignored, so I hauled out the Mines of Madness from D&D Next, as it was known in 2013, and off we went.

There was a bittersweet note though: As we waited for the full set of players to log in to the VTT, one waxed lyrical about the Mongoose Traveller campaign they intend to play with my son (who will be the GM) during the summer vacation. I’m delighted they’re playing Traveller, but oh man, I wish I could join in, rather than just handing on the baton… the training wheels are well and truly off now, and away he goes down his own road, which is right and proper; but surely it was only last weekend the two of us and his sisters were playing D&D with Lego minifigures?

Where did the time go?

Review: Engines of Babylon

Posted: 6 May 2017 in Reviews

The first of a handful of reviews of things I acquired last year and haven’t got around to reviewing yet…

In a Nutshell: Vehicle design supplement for Stars Without Number. 42 page PDF by Sine Nomine Publishing, written by Kevin Crawford.

CONTENTS

Dead Men’s Toys (1 page): What the book is, namely a selection of vehicle design systems, example vehicles, and stuff your players might pick up while scavenging.

Howling Engines (14 pages): Custom vehicle design rules. These are much like the starship or mecha rules in the core rulebooks (the free edition has no mecha); choose a hull, choose systems to slot into it, total the cost, calculate the derived stats such as speed, armour, hit points. There are 20 basic hulls for aircraft, ground vehicles, and grav vehicles, and a wide range of accessories and weapons to add; most of these are for Tech Levels 3-4, but there are the odd TL 5 and PreTech elements statted up for those lucky enough to have access to them. This is followed by rules for operating vehicles, chases and combat, and the section ends with 15 example vehicles built using the rules.

A Nearer Apogee (14 pages): Design system for insystem ships without spike drives. Similar in concept and methods to the previous chapter, but focussed on TL3 spacecraft rather than ground and air vehicles. In the official SWN universe, these system ships are for planets that either don’t have spike drives or don’t consider them economical for insystem workhorses. A spike drive would run rings round them, but they still have commercial uses. In a homebrew universe they might be the only option available. System ships require different combat and travel rules to spike drive vessels, which you can find in this chapter along with 11 example ships.

Precious Things (6 pages): Treasures of the long-vanished Terran Mandate which PCs might come across while exploring its ruins. No spoilers, but whereas the core rulebooks focus on Mandate relics of use to warriors or starfarers, these 20 items are luxuries which the Mandate elite would have owned. This does not mean they are safe for the ignorant.

Forbidden Fruits (4 pages): While the Precious Things are, if sometimes dangerous, at least not definitively evil, the Forbidden Fruit are maltech devices. You might still find them while scavenging, but your customers are likely to be either Big Bad Evil Guys or those bent on making sure the BBEG don’t get hold of them. These 9 things enslave or destroy on a vast scale. Again, no spoilers.

FORMAT

Colour cover; inside, two-column black text on white in the usual SNP ‘trade dress’, occasional black on white line art.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

None, really; does what it says on the tin.

CONCLUSIONS

My gearhead days are long behind me now, and I am generally happy to stick to the standard vehicles in the core rules of most games, so the design sequences are not something I expect to use. The example vehicles, precious things and forbidden fruit are more useful to me.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5. Not really my cup of tea, but some useful bits to cannibalise and use later.